If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is there to hear it, would it make a bigger impact than the Democratic Gubernatorial debate held on May 15th at the College of Charleston? If you said, “yes” then you would be absolutely correct.
That’s not to say there is anything especially wrong with any of the three candidates trying to earn the Democratic nomination in the upcoming race for Governor of South Carolina. As I sat a few rows from the stage where Charleston businessman Phil Noble, Columbia state Rep. James Smith, and Florence antitrust attorney Marguerite Willis stood behind shiny podiums, I was struck with two distinct feelings: 1) these people would all be perfectly serviceable in the position of governor and 2) they couldn’t charm their way out of a wet paper bag. Unfortunately, it’s that second point that is going to make this entire race a meaningless exercise in futility.
See, up until 2016 when I attempted my first run for political office, I had a lot more respect for elected officials. Wait, that’s not actually true: It wasn’t the elected officials who I thought highly of, it was the election process that I held in esteem. The people who vote to put those in power held a lofty place in my mind’s eye. To me, each voter was a serious and well informed person who, even if they didn’t necessarily agree with someone on all issues, had the best interest of all citizens every time they stepped in the booth.
To be fair, I think my elevated idea of voters was a reflection of how I felt about myself. I was a smart guy, I meant well, and tried to stay somewhat informed on the issues. Certainly all other voters matched my level of intention. What I found, about myself and other voters, couldn’t be further from the truth. Ninety percent of voters don’t care about “the issues.” In fact, the phrase “the issues” is a misnomer as there are no broad set of policies or situations that all voters care about. One person prioritizes health care, while another person cares deeply about criminal justice reform. Even within these silos of concern, you will find division. You’ll have one half of the criminal justice crowd wanting to focus on better pay for correctional officers and tougher stances on the smuggling of contraband while others want to change the laws that put people in prison in the first place. That’s why, in my experience, I found that phrase to be nothing more than useful rhetoric — a pleasing pairing of words that imply empathy even when evidence proves the contrary.
If my State House campaign has taught me anything it’s that issues do not matter as much as “it.” “It” being star power. “It” being an uncanny likeability that permeates the air anytime someone with a certain je ne sais quoi speaks. Trump’s ascension from real estate mogul to reality TV star to President of the United States is proof positive of that concept. But, honestly, you don’t even have to look that far to see an example of South Carolinians being swayed by a charismatic character.
We live in state run by a political party that supposedly stands firm on a platform of fiscal responsibility and the sanctity of Christian values. Yet the majority of eligible voters still decided to elect, into the United States Congress, a man who while Governor of said state, used public funds to assist in his extramarital affair. You know why? Because at the end of the day Mark Sanford is a smooth operator that people just seem to warm up to. I’ve met him a few times and even I think he’s a cool dude. I mean, he’s a morally corrupt adulterer, but he’s a lot of fun in a social setting.
Which leads me to my problem with the three candidates the Democratic party has to choose from. They are all very intelligent people who, if given the chance, would be fine in the position of governor. But because there is nothing memorable about them, I just don’t see the winner of this primary making a dent in the Republican voting block. Remember the movie Ocean’s 11? There’s a scene where Rusty, played by Brad Pitt, is giving some last minute pointers to an ambitious young con-man named Linus Caldwell (played by Matt Damon) as he prepares for an important encounter.
In this particular scene, Rusty is trying to teach Linus how to be affable without being the life of the party advising him to not “…use seven words when four will do.” Rusty continues by instructing Linus to “…be specific but not memorable, be funny but don’t make him laugh. He’s got to like you then forget you the moment you’ve left his side.”
That exchange properly describes my opinion of the Democratic nominees. It’s like they saw the same movie and decided to take this advice to heart during their debate. There were flashes of energy but not brilliance, there were moments of laughter but nothing you’d feel compelled to repeat later. Shade was thrown, dispersions cast, and talking points uttered (Mr. Noble repeated a variation of the phrase “plantation politics” at least three times during the hour long debate), but none of that will be enough to overtake whoever looms victorious from the Republican primary.
I mean, have you seen Catherine Templeton’s commercials? If her “Conservative Buzzsaw” moniker doesn’t get our state’s Republicans all lathered up then her commercial where she simulates killing a snake by shooting it with a gun that her granddad gave her most certainly will. Policies aside, that’s what our Democratic nominee will have to deal with and, based on what I saw at this debate, I just don’t think they have enough juice to squeeze out a win.
KJ Kearney is the founder of Charleston Sticks Together.