A Look at South Carolina

Posted August 18, 2003 at 8:36am

For the better part of the past five decades, Sens. Strom Thurmond (R) and Fritz Hollings (D) stood as twin pillars of their respective parties in the Palmetto State. [IMGCAP(1)]

But with Thurmond’s retirement last cycle and subsequent death this year and Hollings’ recent announcement that he would not run for an eighth term, both parties are turning to fresh-faced politicians to lead them in the 21st century.

“The face has changed to Lindsey Graham and Mark Sanford,” state Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson said, referring to the state’s new GOP Senator and governor. “We have never been in this good of shape.”

Graham won Thurmond’s open seat in 2002; Sanford defeated Gov. Jim Hodges (D) 53 percent to 47 percent. Hodges had been the state’s first Democratic governor since 1982.

The two victories reinforced the idea that South Carolina — once a Democratic stronghold of the “Solid South” — has become perhaps the most reliably Republican state in the region.

Aside from Hollings, only two other Democrats hold statewide offices: State Agriculture Commissioner Grady Patterson and State Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum.

Republicans control four of the six Congressional seats — with an eye on Rep. John Spratt’s (D) conservative-leaning 5th district — and have majorities in both the state House and Senate.

Hodges acknowledged in an interview

last week that the electorate is growing more conservative with each election cycle and “more of these folks won’t even take a look at you because you’re a Democrat.”

The growing GOP trend “makes it harder for [a Democrat] to have a long-term career,” added Hodges, who served 11 years in the state House prior to his four years as governor.

But all hope is not lost for Democrats, Hodges and state party officials argue, noting that both Tenenbaum and Columbia Mayor Bob Coble (D) have jumped into the contest to replace Hollings, a development they interpret as a testament to the fact that South Carolina remains competitive for both parties.

“Democrats will always have a chance in statewide elections,” Hodges said.

On the House level, however, Democrats’ chances look something less than rosy.

President Bush would have won every district except the majority-minority 6th of Rep. James Clyburn (D) in the 2000 election, and, in recent years, a new crop of Republican House Members has further secured the party’s hold on the Congressional delegation.

In the 1st, 2nd and 3rd districts, Republican Reps. Henry Brown, Joe Wilson and Gresham Barrett have been elected since 2000.

Of the three, only Brown — who is 67 — is expected to leave within the next few terms.

His 1st district, which includes Charleston, is reliably Republican; Bush won 59 percent of the vote there in 2000.

Interestingly, the next Member from South Carolina’s Low Country — the coastal area including Charleston and Myrtle Beach — may be decided next fall when the seat of longtime state Sen. Arthur Ravenel (R) comes open. Ravenel served in the U.S. House from 1986 until 1994 when he ran unsuccessfully for governor. He was then elected to the state Senate, a post he held prior to his time in the U.S. House.

Ravenel’s current state Senate district takes in much of Charleston as well as Horry County, which includes the Myrtle Beach area, and the next state Senator is likely to have a significant advantage when Brown decides to retire.

A number of Republicans have been mentioned for the Ravenel seat, but so far only former state Rep. Chip Campsen is actively exploring the race.

Campsen served in the House from 1996 until 2002 when he left due to a self-imposed term-limits pledge. He served as Sanford’s policy adviser until late last month when he stepped down.

Other Republicans mentioned as potential Brown successors include former Myrtle Beach-area state Rep. Mark Kelly, Horry County Republican Party Chairman Duane Oliver and state Rep. Bobby Harrell.

While Democrats are not expected to seriously contend for the seat when Brown leaves, one interesting name mentioned for Congress or other elected office is that of Bratton Riley, the son of longtime Charleston Mayor Joe Riley. Joe Riley was sworn in to a seventh term in 2000; his son will most likely to run to succeed him, according to Democratic sources.

Both Wilson, who won a special election to replace deceased Rep. Floyd Spence (R) in December 2001, and Barrett, who replaced Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) in 2002, have aspirations for higher office.

Wilson was seen as a potentially attractive Senate candidate and expressed an interest in the race before taking himself out of contention last December.

Democrats believe they could make a run at the 2nd district if it comes open; Columbia state Rep. James Smith and Richland County Treasurer David Adams, both in their 30s, are seen as legitimate Democratic contenders.

Barrett is mentioned as a potential gubernatorial candidate in 2010 when the seat would be open assuming Sanford is re-elected to a second term in 2006.

The most intriguing name in the mix as a possible Barrett successor is J. Strom Thurmond Jr., the son of the former Senator, who is currently a U.S. attorney. Bush appointed Thurmond to his post in 2001 at age 28.

Rep. Jim DeMint (R) is vacating the Up Country 4th district — the most Republican in the state — to run for Senate, and three GOP candidates are already in the race to replace him.

Former Rep. Bob Inglis, who held the seat from 1992 to 1998, is the frontrunner, but former Public Service Commissioner Phil Bradley and former state Rep. Carole Wells are also in the primary contest.

The lone competitive district in the state is the 5th, where Spratt has served since 1982.

After close calls in 1994 and 1996, Republicans have largely given up on seriously challenging Spratt, preferring to wait until the seat comes open.

Spratt is expected to serve only a term or two more, according to knowledgeable Democrats.

His departure will give Republicans one of their best pickup opportunities in the country as Bush would have taken 55 percent of the vote in the 5th in 2000.

The key to Spratt’s winning formula, partisans on both sides agree, has been his fundraising advantage over his opponents, which allows him to buy television time in the expensive Charlotte, N.C., media market.

As a result, both parties are likely to look for wealthy candidates who are able to fund the significant cost of getting known in the Charlotte market, which reaches roughly 45 percent of the district.

Several high-profile Republicans are based in the district and could run formidable campaigns. Former Gov. David Beasley lives in Darlington County in the far eastern part of the 5th; former Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler has a home in Cherokee County in the extreme west.

Among the other Republicans mentioned are state Sens. Wes Hayes and Greg Gregory.

On the Democratic side, state Reps. Doug Jennings and Vince Shaheen are seen as potential candidates as is 2002 lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Phil Leventis.

Another name mentioned is former Hodges Chief of Staff Kevin Geddings, who has a home in York County, the population center of the 5th district. Geddings has personal money as well as connections to key money players in the state, according to knowledgeable Democratic sources. Geddings is now a consultant in the state.

The only sure thing for Democrats in the Congressional delegation is Clyburn’s 6th district, which takes in much of the black communities in both Charleston and Columbia.

The district is 57 percent black, according to the 2000 Census, and then-Vice President Al Gore would have won 58 percent there in 2000.

Although Clyburn has given no indication that he will leave in the near future, several Democratic candidates are already discussed.

Chief among them is Steve Benjamin, a black lawyer who served as the director of public safety in the Hodges administration. Benjamin took 44 percent in a losing campaign for state attorney general in 2002.

Another name bandied about is state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, who served as the body’s first black Minority Leader from 1998 to 2000.