There’s a big lesson in the 2018 elections for the S.C. House of Representatives: The more competitive that elections are, the more likely the old order will be shaken up.
Sadly in 2018, 80 of 124 races for the House were not competitive in the general election. Forty-two Republicans, mostly in the Upstate, and 28 Democrats faced no November challengers, although some had primary challengers in June. Of the 44 remaining November races, only 10 had margins of victory of fewer than 20 points, meaning they were somewhat competitive.
Those 10 seats are the most instructive: Seven of the 10 challenged, competitive seats were along the coast. In Berkeley County, newcomer Krystle Simmons, a Democrat, beat GOP Rep. Bill Crosby, who hasn’t faced an opponent since 2010. Also in Berkeley County, Democratic newcomer JA Moore beat incumbent Republican Samuel Rivers Jr. Conversely in Dorchester County, longtime Democratic Rep. Patsy Knight lost by six points to Republican newcomer Mandy Kimmons.
In Charleston County, which turned out big in the U.S. House race for Democratic candidate Joe Cunningham in his “blue wave” victory over Katie Arrington, James Island’s Carol Tempel came just two points short of knocking off GOP S.C. Rep. Peter McCoy.
Bottom line: Incumbents in the Trump era may be a little more vulnerable than people traditionally have thought. But if no candidates from other parties challenge incumbents, there can’t be real change.
So when the new session of the S.C. House gets underway in 2019, it will look about how it looked this year. The chamber will have 80 Republicans and 44 Democrats. And that should tell you something: Old-fashioned gerrymandering of districts to support incumbent officeholders has worked to favor the GOP year after year.
Just look at the state map. Republicans completely dominate Upstate House seats with only three Democrats, all black women, among office holders in the area, which is home to one-third of House seats. It’s just all red. But imagine what would happen if some of the 40 Upstate seats, 27 of which were uncontested, actually had opponents in the general election? Despite hurdles caused by specially-drawn gerrymandered seats to protect incumbents, some of these seats might actually become competitive. At the very least, voters would have a choice.
Lowcountry House seats are competitive, in part, because new people are moving into the area. Charleston is trending blue because of the newcomers, but also because of an energized party that offers choices to voters.
“I definitely think my winning is indicative of change,” Simmons told Post and Courier reporter Brenda Rindge. “I think that people are moving in every day, and you’re getting more of a mesh of people. I definitely think the way the county looks is changing, and I think that some of the people are realizing that not all change is bad change.
“Even some of the people who have been there their whole lives … they’re ready for something different. You don’t have to lose the integrity of who you are in order to embrace change.”
Berkeley County Democratic Party Chair Melissa Watson told the newspaper that voters like choices.
“I always knew that if the party had a candidate on the ballot that we would win that seat,” she said. “In 20 years, we never had a single Democratic choice. Krystle Simmons was unafraid to step up and say she was a Democrat.”
There are two more lessons in the 2018 election results, particularly for political parties: Start doing your job better to recruit, train, and help candidates to run for House seats. It won’t be easy, particularly because the deck of gerrymandered district lines may be stacked against you. But if you don’t try, nothing will ever change.
Second, Democrats in the legislature should start hollering now that voters won’t accept more gerrymandering after the 2020 census. Other states, such as Iowa, and countries, such as Australia, have figured out ways to have independent commissions to draw lines fairly and without politics in mind. South Carolina needs to jump on the bandwagon of transparency, accountability and fairness in legislative reapportionment of districts. To do less is a slap in the face of voters who want real choices, not incumbents who go unchallenged year after year.
Andy Brack is editor and publisher of Statehouse Report. Have a comment? Send to: firstname.lastname@example.org