Retirements, well-funded challengers and one high-profile outburst mean S.C. voters will have an unusually high number of competitive congressional races next year.
U.S. Rep. Henry Brown's retirement announcement Monday means voters along the coast and in U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett's Upstate district - which stretches from Aiken to Oconee County - will choose a new representative. Barrett is not seeking re-election in order to run for governor.
In addition, U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis is facing at least four challengers in his GOP primary, while U.S. Rep. John Spratt, a Democrat, faces up-and-coming Republican challenger state Sen. Mick Mulvaney for the Rock Hill-area district. Among those seeking to unseat Inglis in his Greenville and Spartanburg-area district are 7th Judicial Circuit solicitor Trey Gowdy, Wofford College instructor Christina Jeffrey, Mauldin businessman Jim Lee, and state Sen. David Thomas.
And national Democrats turned Lexington U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson into public enemy No. 1 after he yelled "You lie!" during President Barack Obama's September address, helping challenger Rob Miller to raise more than $1.7 million. Wilson is ready to counter with $2.7 million of his own, according to campaign filings. It's the richest U.S. House race in state history.
South Carolina is a Republican-dominated state, observers said, which often means few primaries and overmatched general election candidates. But anti-incumbent sentiment - which might mean a boom year for Republicans - has spurred an unusual number of contested races.
"It's unusual, certainly, here," said College of Charleston political scientist Michael Lee. "It will be interesting to see South Carolina turnover as a bellwether of national trends."
South Carolina often ignores national political trends, said Greenville-based consultant Chip Felkel, but could lead a voter protest against the policies of Obama and other Democrats.
"The political face of South Carolina will have a different look in January 2011, that's for sure," Felkel said.
If voters are considering throwing the bums out, Felkel and Democratic consultant Trav Robertson said, Brown's retirement could give incumbents a new issue - seniority.
Wilson is now the longest-serving Republican seeking congressional re-election, with nine years in his current office.
Robertson said Spratt's 14 terms and a budget chairmanship are a valuable asset.
"That's where South Carolina gets its power-sharing," Robertson said.
A busy federal ballot will impact South Carolina's slate of nine statewide races next year, observers said, with savvy state-level candidates tapping voter interest to boost their own profiles and fundraising efforts.
"It breeds political opportunity," Robertson said. "It increases the visibility and contact that voters will have with candidates."
In addition, the 2010 census could add a seventh congressional seat - possibly including Horry County, which now is in Brown's district - and would require redrawing the state's other six districts.
The one sure outcome of a full congressional slate: aA boon for the state economy and political consultants.
"Candidates will be spending money on television, mail, restaurants and gas," Robertson said.
Reach O'Connor at (803) 771-8358.