Sean Rayford file photo

Statehouse will be different for Dems in 2021

The $200 million spent in South Carolina on the U.S. Senate race between Republican Lindsey Graham and Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison sucked the oxygen out of down-ballot Democratic campaigns.

“Nationalizing the election just killed down-ballot races,” said one key Statehouse insider who asked not to be named.

More than 71% of South Carolina’s registered voters cast ballots on Tuesday, a 4-point increase from 2.1 million voters in 2016 to 2.5 million this year.

In Tuesday’s races, state Democrats lost three S.C. Senate seats, further eroding a minority already in peril. In the S.C. House, they’re lucky to have lost only two seats this week, which is a net loss of one position for 2021 after they picked up a coastal seat in a fall special election. 

As it stands for the 2021 legislative session, South Carolina Republicans tightened their grip on power. They’ll open with 30 of 46 seats in the state Senate. In the House, they’ll start at 81 of 124 seats in the House. If the House GOP picks up just two more seats — a distinct possibility if districts are further gerrymandered next year following redistricting — House Republicans will have a supermajority. That would mean they wouldn’t have to have Democratic help to override vetos or make major procedural changes.

Losses of Sheheen, Norrell will have big impact

Voters on Tuesday unseated Democratic state Sens. Vincent Sheheen of Camden, Floyd Nicholson of Greenwood and Glenn Reese of Spartanburg. In the House, voters turned to Republicans to replace Democratic Reps. Mandy Powers Norrell of Lancaster and Laurie Slade Funderburk of Camden.

Sheheen

Each of the five has been successful in working across the aisle with Republicans to move legislation forward. But the losses of Sheheen and Norrell, who were the 2018 Democratic candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, shocked many in the Columbia establishment.

Sheheen has served for years as an intellectual leader among Democrats, writing a policy book and crafting major bills to replace the cantankerous state Budget and Control Board, reform the state pension system and provide 4-year-old kindergarten to children across the state. Additionally, as one senior Republican lawmaker commented, Sheheen is friends with GOP leaders and often worked with them to find “sweet spots” to make difficult legislation acceptable to both parties.

Norrell

Like Sheheen, Norrell has been respected as a go-to leader who could be counted to work out deals on key legislation. Both, according to several insiders, will be sorely missed.

When asked why they lost, observers pointed to more voters in their districts who probably pulled straight-party GOP levers to cast vote Tuesday because of how state elections were nationalized by unrelenting national partisan politics that erupted in the U.S. Senate race.

What else happened Tuesday?

“It was a very rough day for Democrats” in South Carolina, said College of Charleston political science professor Gibbs Knotts. “We live in a Republican state.”

He noted exit polls showed 42% of voters identified as Republican while 29%said they were Democrats and a like percentage said they were independent. Adding to the Democratic Party’s challenges in South Carolina is how 47% of voters said they were conservative, 37% were moderate and 15% considered themselves liberal.

And with all of the negative advertising in 2020 — particularly ads that tied Harrison to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer of New York — the state party’s “brand” suffered.

“When the national Democratic Party is labeled as liberal, that makes it really hard for South Carolina Democratic candidates,” Knotts said. And it didn’t help, others observed, that the top-of-the-ticket Senate race didn’t focus enough on South Carolina-themed messages to illustrate how state Democrats differ from Washington politics.

Another hurdle for state Democrats this year: Traditional voter turnout methodologies, such as rallies, door-knocking, house parties and other engagement strategies, suffered because of limitations caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

What’s next?

To build strength, analysts say South Carolina Democrats have to find a unifying message to highlight their values, appeal to more voters and stick to the message. In other words, they have to get back to basics and try not to be cute with strategies like encouraging conservatives to vote for more conservative candidates than Republicans. 

“Harrison’s campaign has identified people in the state who are willing to support Democrats,” said Furman political scientist Danielle Vinson. “The party needs to build on that and figure out what was appealing about their message and what wasn’t. 

“[Congressman Joe] Cunningham won two years ago because the Republican candidate was on the wrong side of a local issue, offshore drilling. Democrats have to figure out how to make their issues local — convince their Republican neighbors that climate change and racial justice issues matter. “

Fortunately for state Democrats in 2022, there won’t be a Republican presidential contest that will drive the GOP vote as much as it did this year.

“President Trump proved to be quite popular in South Carolina and most certainly had coattails that helped down-ballot Republicans,” Knotts said. “The same can be said for Lindsey Graham. There will not be a Republican president running in the next governor’s race.”