Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg nearly avoided a runoff last week, but headed into a two-way do-over against Councilman Mike Seekings, both will need to defend and expand their voter bases on Nov. 19.
Official election results show incumbent Tecklenburg having earned 47.83 percent of the 26,253 ballots cast, with Seekings in a distant second, earning 34.27 percent of the vote. Four challengers shared the remaining 18 percent of the vote.
Tecklenburg is seeking re-election as his first term in office comes to a close. Seekings, who has long flirted with running for mayor, was elected to city council in 2009.
The Seekings and Tecklenburg camps are moving toward the deciding Nov. 19 election with a bit of a head start, now that they know where their supporters turned out on Nov. 5. First round results will influence each candidate’s strategy and focus in the final week of the election.
Voters off of the Charleston peninsula helped buoy Tecklenburg’s initial numbers, while Seekings won downtown precincts where he serves on city council. In all, Seekings won a little fewer than half of downtown precincts, including much of District 8 on the southwestern part of the peninsula.
Candidates in the City of Charleston must earn a majority of votes to be elected to public office.
In West Ashley, Tecklenburg managed to capture more than 60 percent, while Seekings’ support sat closer to 15 percent as challengers more-evenly split votes across the river. James Island votes kept pace with citywide results, with the mayor taking just over half the votes in those precincts.
Seekings found his biggest off-peninsula wins in Johns Island, where he won just over 40 percent of votes cast on election day.
Of course, there’s no guarantee general election voters will turn out again on Nov. 19, and not all Nov. 5 voters went to the polls just to vote in the mayoral election.
High numbers of voters turned out to weigh in on contested city council elections in West Ashley and Johns Island, where incumbents Bill Moody and Marvin Wagner were voted out in favor of new, younger voices. But while Tecklenburg did well in Moody’s West Ashley district (where he also lives), Seekings fared best on Johns Island, where flooding and development issues have taken center stage in the election.
For the large majority of voters, the mayoral race will be the only thing that appears on runoff ballots. One city council race, District 3 downtown, will see a runoff between incumbent James Lewis and Jason Sakran.
In 2015, Charleston’s first major mayoral election in decades drew about 25,100 voters to the polls, with just a 5 percent drop off when Teklenburg faced S.C. Rep. Leon Stavrinakis in a runoff two weeks later. (Two council races also had runoffs in 2015.)
As the race heads into the homestretch, voters may see a strategy shift from Seekings and Tecklenburg, even if they downplay the changes.
Protect and Defend
Throughout the general election, Tecklenburg played the consummate incumbent frontrunner, running his race with little regard to how challengers attempted to frame his short time as mayor.
But on election night, after weeks of campaign aides swatting away anonymous critiques in targeted political mailings, Tecklenburg took aim at Seekings, reading from prepared remarks as it became clear the race would go to a runoff.
“After all of that dark money, that money where we don’t know it came from, and all the anonymous attacks, we’re still standing together as one city,” Tecklenburg told supporters on election night at Frothy Beard Brewing Co. in West Ashley. “The choice is clear,” the mayor repeated.
Mail sent to Charleston voters in late October bore a disclosure by Citizens for a Better Charleston LLC, an otherwise-unknown group registered to Seekings’ former law partner. The group is not required to disclose its donors or how much money it spent under state ethics laws.
For months, Seekings, Councilman Gary White, and other challengers oriented their strategies around defeating Tecklenburg, so the dark money mailings were not the first negative campaigning in the race. Seekings’ TV commercials and fundraising appeals repeatedly chide the mayor, though the councilman chalks them up as an attempt at “contrast.”
“We’re not going to do a whole lot different,” Seekings told the City Paper last week. “We’re going to run our campaign and see if it resonates or not.”
The Charleston Livability PAC, a registered political group, also pumped money into council elections, but did not take a position in the mayoral race. Unregistered and undocumented groups have circulated negative mail in local races as well.
Knowing he’s got plenty of ground to make up in a 34-48 race, Seekings says he understands Tecklenburg’s maneuvers to pull in new votes against a single opponent on Nov. 19. Late last week, the mayor went on TV with a new “contrast” ad of his own.
“He’s going to play the cards he thinks he needs to play to get his 2 percent,” says Seekings.