South Carolina: Outlier or National Precursor?

South Carolina: Outlier or National Precursor?

By Patrick Caddell and Kendra Stewart - June 28, 2010

The character of South Carolina has always been distinguished by one very important trait – preserving the status quo. Except for once in a blue moon when it does something truly revolutionary, like starting a civil war.  In keeping with this character it has historically been most resistant to reform.  South Carolina was the last state to permit the direct election of the president, to grant its governor any appointment power, and to modernize its state government.  After all, this is a state where the legislature, rather than the governor, still maintains direct control of most state agencies and in addition elects all of the state’s judges without any input from governor or the people.  And it is the state that holds the distinction for having elected one the longest serving and oldest Senators in US history (Strom Thurmond).  Incumbency has been the most decisive factor in South Carolina politics; when we elect ‘em, we keep ‘em.

So what is to be made of this month’s primary and run-off elections?

This past Tuesday represents a New Day in South Carolina politics.  A conservative, Bible-belt state known for its past resistance to civil rights and its current lack of women in elected office (ranked 50th on this front) strongly supported an Indian-American woman for the state’s highest office and an African-American man for an overwhelmingly white Congressional district.  Even more interesting in both cases these candidates were chosen by the Republican primary voters over white men representing the epitome of the South Carolina “good-ole boy” establishment.  Beyond this, in the primary and run-off elections, we witnessed a wholesale dispatchment of some of the best known politicians of both parties and the selection of a number of improbable candidates, highlighted by Alvin Greene’s Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.  

So, does this totally unanticipated voter revolt in the least likely state mean that South Carolina is just a crazy outlier or the national barometer for the coming future of American politics?

It began in the primary on June 8th when voters sieved through the political leadership of both parties to select some unlikely newcomers.  Thirty-eight year old Nikki Haley, who only a few weeks before had been running in last place and was the least funded of all the Republican candidates, came within a percent of winning the Republican nomination for governor outright.  Leaving the other half of the vote split up between three prominent party leaders.  The state’s Attorney General and Lieutenant Governor, who barely a month before were the clear frontrunners, finished next to last and last respectively – garnering less than 30% of the vote between the two of them.  The Democrats’ lone statewide elected official, the Superintendent for Education, received 23% of the vote in the gubernatorial race, barely edging a controversial state senator, while a 39-year old, heretofore unknown state senator, Vincent Sheheen garnered almost 60% of the vote – winning the nomination outright.  It is nothing short of astounding that the two nominees for the state’s highest office are both under the age of 40 considering just seven years ago South Carolina’s junior U.S. Senator was 81 years old – still young considering that the senior Senator was 100! (Combined they served 87 years in the Senate.) 

Across the board the carnage of change was shocking: an incumbent Congressman - Bob Inglis - lost his own party nomination 71-29%; five term Congressman, Henry Brown (winner of 29 straight elections) left Congress to run for County Supervisor only to lose by a dozen points in his home county’s Republican primary; the incumbent state Treasurer is unhorsed by an obscure challenger; and among state legislators, the Speaker pro-temp of the House lost his seat in a landslide and the Chairman of the super powerful House Ways and Means Committee came within less than 150 votes of losing his seat to a college student.  And of course on the Democratic side the chaos is measured in two words: Alvin Greene.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the historic change brought on in these June elections than the nomination – and all but certain election – of Tim Scott.  In the first Congressional District - the very cradle of the Confederacy (a.k.a. the “Fort Sumter” district) – the over 90% white GOP primary runoff voters, elected the black conservative Scott in a 68-32% landslide over the son of South Carolina legend Strom Thurmond who was endorsed by all of the unsuccessful white candidates from the primary including the son of former governor Carroll Campbell.  For South Carolina it was truly a “when hell freezes over” moment.     

Clearly change and reform are in the saddle – and boy does this state need it.  For a state seemingly inured to its multitude of problems of terrible schools, an under supported higher education system, the nation’s 7th highest unemployment rate, and undisputedly dysfunctional state politics this moment has not come too soon.  Despite its many attributes and resources, South Carolina has stagnated for three decades while its coastal neighbors, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia have achieved startling progress.  

For decades, first as a one-party Democratic state and now as a one-party Republican state, South Carolina has been ruled by a self-serving good-ole boys power structure which has blindly catered to the demands of special interests and insider deals.  Nothing better illustrates its contempt for reform than the continued resistance of the legislative barons to the radical notion of recorded votes.  From the era of segregation to the latest day, the good-ole boy system has protected its power by winning elections with the twin weapons of fear and smear.  Enter Nikki Haley.

The amazing triumph of Nikki Haley was achieved despite multiple allegations of sexual affairs on the eve of the first primary and an occasionally overt and a truly ugly whisper campaign as to her religious beliefs and Indian heritage.  Palin’s endorsement of Haley doubtlessly brought her attention, but we are convinced that her natural charisma, substantive grasp of issues and appealing message of change that in this South Carolina electoral hurricane the voters would have found her anyway.  If successful she clearly has the potential of becoming a national political figure (indeed some people believe that Nikki Haley may actually have the substance that they feel Sarah Palin is lacking).

But it is Nikki Haley’s advocacy of reform that has earned her the enmity of the good-ole boy insiders.  As a result they unleashed their consultant cadre of professional slime merchants against her.  All to no avail.  For the first time in memory, these tactics backfired and helped fuel her momentum.  The heyday of dirty politics may have passed in South Carolina – hallelujah!

The nominations of Scott and Haley have dealt a crippling blow to the smug assertion that the public revolt against the political class in general and the Tea Parties in particular are nothing but the manifestation of narrow-minded, bigoted racists.   

Unlike the Scott election, however, the gubernatorial election is not in the bag for Haley.  She carries the baggage of a close association with the politically unpopular Governor Mark Sanford and faces a formidable opponent in Vincent Sheheen, who is also an advocate for change.  A campaign convincing voters that Haley is just a third term of the same, or one more scandalous accusation could be all it would take to tilt the scales in Sheheen’s favor.  At some point South Carolina voters may tire of being front page news for embarrassing political gaffes and fear Haley is a risky choice finding Sheheen the safer bet.   

Speaking of heightening the concerns about being embarrassed – there is, of course, Alvin Greene.  Regardless of where he got his filing fee, how he won is not really so surprising considering the political upheaval occurring in the state.  In an election where voters were throwing out well-known figures left and right, Greene’s was merely the most extreme expression in an election where his opponent took him for granted and where voters were prompted by the voting machines not to skip any race.  Greene is turning out to be a liability for the Democratic party overall as Republican leaders have already begun associating him with other candidates in referring to the “Greene-Sheheen political machine.”  The question is will this work with South Carolina voters, or will it backfire like the attempts to smear Haley?

Further highlighting the people’s desire for change, a grassroots effort is currently underway to draft another woman reformer to the ballot for this election.  Signatures are being gathered supporting philanthropist Linda Ketner – who nearly upset and incumbent Republican in a heavily GOP Congressional District in 2008 – as an Independent candidate for the U.S. Senate.  This is a strong expression of the desire of citizens seeking a credible candidate as an alternative to the incumbent Senator DeMint.

Certainly the events of this South Carolina June elections will have real significance down the road given the state’s early prominent place in the presidential primary calendar.  But the significance for American politics could be even greater.

To those of us who live in South Carolina nothing has better captured the spirit of the state than the state’s former Attorney General James Petigru’s reaction upon hearing of South Carolina’s secession from the Union: "South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.”  So these recent political happenings beg the question – is this just South Carolina having another crazy moment or is it giving us a window into an emerging grassroots political revolt in America?  Could it be that South Carolina is again leading a secession – this time a secession of the main stream of the American people from their establishment political class?

Patrick Caddell is a former Democratic pollster and strategist for President Jimmy Carter and Dr. Kendra Stewart is an Associate Professor of Political Science at The College of Charleston.

Patrick Caddell and Kendra Stewart

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