Seek to inspire voters after election losses
By Tim Smith
Staff Writer firstname.lastname@example.org
COLUMBIA — The chairman of the battered state Democratic Party, whose candidates suffered a string of defeats last week, says Democrats will have to find a way to inspire voters to win future state elections.
Jaime Harrison, the state party’s first African-American chairman, told The Greenville News that his party must reach more than AfricanAmericans in the state to be successful.
“We’ve got to find really good candidates who appeal to independents and moderate Republicans,” he said. “The Democratic Party cannot be the black party.”
Harrison spoke days after Democrats failed to win a single statewide office and lost the governor’s race by nearly three times the margin in their 2010 loss.
This year’s defeats were a mirror of those four years ago. Democrats last claimed the governor’s office with the election of Jim Hodges in 1998. Both the state House and the Senate are dominated by Republicans. Only the re-election of U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of Columbia has kept the state’s nine-member congressional delegation from being an all-GOP group.
“There’s no question the party is struggling in South Carolina today,” said Clyburn, House assistant Democratic leader. “(But) the pendulum goes back and forth politically.”
Political experts say the party isn’t dead but has a steep uphill climb to win again on a statewide level.
“While they certainly are weakened and the Republicans are certainly dominant, it’s simply not true that the Democrats are non-existent,” said Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political science professor and the director of the Winthrop Poll. “They definitely are on a long losing streak.”
Huffmon said state Democrats have repeatedly hinged their strategy in mid-term elections on appealing to certain subgroups, this time white women and African-Americans. It hasn’t worked, he said.
“They are definitely going to have to change tactics,” he said.
Phil Noble, president of the South Carolina New Democrats, agrees. “If this was Japan, then there would be at least a dozen people in state party headquarters that would have fallen on their samurai swords this morning,” he said the day after the election.
South Carolina has long been labeled as a 55-45 state by political observers, meaning Republicans can be assured of getting 55 percent of the vote to Democrats’ 45 percent in statewide races.
Democratic Senator Vincent Sheheen, in his first 2010 matchup with Haley, came within 4.5 points of Haley, collecting 630,534 votes.
Tuesday night, however, Haley beat Sheheen by 14 points and the Democrat collected 115,000 fewer votes than in 2010.
In fact, while in 2010, seven Democrats earned more than 500,000 votes, this week only two candidates – Sheheen and Bakari Sellers, running for lieutenant governor – collected that many votes. Voter turnout overall was down from 2010, according to the State Election Commission.
“I don’t know that round two with Sheheen as their guy was wise,” said Chip Felkel, a Greenville GOP political consultant, who said the state could benefit if the Democratic Party was healthier. “I don’t think he was nearly the candidate this time that he was the first time.”
He noted that Sellers, a firsttime statewide candidate, collected only 7,000 fewer votes than Sheheen.
“Perhaps he should have been their nominee,” he said. “I think the Democrats followed the GOP playbook for presidential politics. Everybody thought it was his (Sheheen’s) turn again. And that didn’t work real well for the GOP and apparently is not going to work well with the Democrats in South Carolina.”
Experts say the Democrats’ challenges this year in the state included not only a lack of funds but also an effort by the GOP nationwide to nationalize local races by tying Democrats to an unpopular president and his policies.
Clyburn said Democrats in the state failed to push back sufficiently on the issue of Medicaid and allowed Republicans to frame the issue as one of growing a poverty program, when most of those who benefit in the state are children and white people.
He said people statewide received rebate checks this year from their insurers as part of a provision in the Affordable Care Act but people didn’t know that.
“We lost this campaign because of messaging that took place,” he said. “You have to fight back on these issues. You can’t sit there and say I’m going to stay above the fray. You cannot stay above the fray if you have announced for office. You are in the fray the moment you pay your filing fee.”
Dick Harpootlian, who served as chairman of the party before Harrison and is a former solicitor , said one problem for Democrats is that they many times don’t distinguish themselves from Republicans in statewide races.
He said while four GOP statewide officeholders have been convicted of crimes in the past decade, the latest being House Speaker Bobby Harrell, Democrats for the most part aren’t making that an issue, which he finds baffling.
“The reason for that, my sense is, is there are a number of Democrats in the Legislature who’ve been there so long that they are not part of the culture of corruption but they understand you have to go along to get along,” he said.
“And until that culture changes and there is a distinction between the parties, the average white, independent South Carolinian is likely going to vote for the Republican rather than the Democrat.”
Harpootlian, a bare-knuckles defense lawyer, said his frustration isn’t with Harrison but with elected Democrats who aren’t doing enough to draw a distinction for their party.
“There’s no fight in them,” he said. “That’s not just having a press conference. It’s using the legislative process to get what you want. And they don’t do it. They don’t want to be not appointed on the committee they want to be on. Why does it matter to be on a committee if you can’t get anything done for the state?”
Todd Shaw, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina, said South Carolina’s Democrats were swept in the same GOP wave that rode the nation Tuesday. He said state and national Democrats “have some evaluating to do.”
“South Carolina Democrats face the uphill battle of not being able to recruit very much from an independent middle,” he said.
“Even though we have independents, they are more likely to lean stronger in one direction with both of the parties. And there is a stronger Republican identification in this state than Democratic. Not having that independent middle, swing voter is the continuing uphill battle the party faces.”
Huffmon said he thinks a lot of potential candidates are hesitant to run if they think they have very little chance.
He said to produce successful statewide candidates, parties need to start at the grassroots level and groom candidates for successively higher offices. But Democrats are limited in Statehouse seats because Republicans drew the districts in their favor.
“The Democrats of South Carolina definitely have to expand their bench,” he said. “They have to find qualified candidates who are willing to run. And they have to shift tactics if for no other reason than what they have been doing hasn’t been working.”
Harrison said he isn’t discouraged because this year’s results remind him of results in 2004, when “Democrats all across the South got wiped out.”
Two years later, he said, Democrats took back the U.S. House and Senate and elected a president in 2008.
“I’m not despairing,” he said. “People want to lick their wounds now. But I think what we have to do in South Carolina is roll up our sleeves, crunch the numbers and see what we didn’t do well and try to fix that.”
He said the party is well represented on the local level with county councils, mayors and sheriffs.
“But we need to make sure they translate on the statewide level because they haven’t done so yet,” he said.
Harrison said his job before 2018 is to build a coalition that reaches beyond African-Americans.
He said the party has to do better at turnout. He said he was surprised the numbers weren’t higher.
In 10 days, he said, the party called more than 400,000 people and knocked on 100,000 doors with 3,500 volunteers.
“The side that is able to rally their base and to do so enthusiastically is the side that wins,” he said.
Harrison said candidates must have a vision that encompasses all, from rural conservative farmers to more progressive urban dwellers.
He said he is reminded of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign ad that successfully articulated his vision.
“I really think what we should have done is have an image like that,” he said. “An image that it didn’t matter if you’re a black person or a white person or whatever. He was able to pull a whole coalition of folks that weren’t his base supporters. People want to be inspired. They are so frustrated with how things are going. Negative campaigning is good as far as providing a contrast. But at the same time it’s very important that we give people something to believe in.”