Based on the large number of campaign signs lining Lexington County roadways, voters would have expected to see state Sen. Jake Knotts in a GOP primary heat Tuesday with challenger Katrina Shealy.
Instead, the race was a only a mirage on ballots in Tuesday’s primary.
But it was a powerful one.
The fight to represent Senate District 23, which covers an area from Cayce to Batesburg-Leesville, was behind a lawsuit that booted more than 250 candidates statewide from Tuesday’s primary – including Shealy.
Despite being kicked off the ballot, Shealy hasn’t given up on ousting Knotts.
Soon after the polls opened Tuesday morning, Shealy was at the rural Pond Branch polling precinct near Gilbert, trying to protect herself from the rain, as she asked voters to sign petitions to qualify her and other candidates to run as independents in the general election.
“We need you in November, so remember that,” Shealy, an insurance underwriter, told a rain-dampened voter.
Many signed petitions out of frustration that a court ruling had cut the number of choices on Tuesday’s ballot. Some Lexington precincts were left with few competitive races.
“I feel I have been cheated,” said Ronnie Mouzon, a Batesburg-Leesville electrician, after meeting Shealy. “I was more interested in signing the petitions than voting.”
Not everyone was interested in picking up a pen.
Steven Newhouse gave a polite, “No thanks,” while walking past Shealy – even though he said she is the candidate whom he favored.
“If you can’t fill out right paperwork, how can you fill out bills right?” Newhouse said after getting to his truck. “If you’re not competent at doing something pretty basic, why should I support you?”
Shealy and the other candidates were ousted from the primary ballot after the S.C. Supreme Court agreed with two Lexington County men who filed suit saying some primary challengers had not filed properly some of the paperwork required to run. A quirk in the law left incumbents unaffected by the decision.
Many Lexington County voters – even those who said they support Shealy – said Tuesday they thought Shealy and the others should have followed the law.
“But this is an area where people could show a little mercy,” said John Keeble, a retired construction materials salesman who backs Shealy.
The eligibility battle had ties to Knotts, a 17-year veteran of the General Assembly and a foe of Gov. Nikki Haley – another Lexington County politician. Haley, who says she wants to end the “good ol’ boy” network that she says Knotts represents, backs Shealy, who narrowly lost a bitter 2008 primary runoff to Knotts.
And one of the plaintiffs in the eligibility lawsuit that disqualified Shealy and the others had worked once for Knotts’ campaign. Also, a Charleston attorney, a longtime friend of Knotts, came to Columbia to argue against Shealy as she tried to persuade the state GOP executive committee to reinstate her at a hearing.
Haley spoke at that hearing, after testimony in Shealy’s case ended. Without naming Shealy or Knotts, the first-term governor asked Republican committee members to change the culture of state politics. The committee then voted to reinstate Shealy, but the State Election Commission subsequently said the deadline had passed to add her name to the ballot.
Knotts has denied he was behind the effort to oust Shealy and the others from the primary. He blames Haley, who as a member of the House sponsored a law that required electronic filing of election disclosures and reports. “She wanted transparency,” Knotts said of Haley Tuesday. “She got transparency.”
But even Roxanne Wilson, a friend of Knotts who said she respects his work as a state senator, says she thinks he had a hand in orchestrating the lawsuit.
“He engaged in dirty politics,” the wife of U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-Springdale, said Tuesday while helping collect petition signatures for her sister, who now wants to run for Lexington County clerk of court as an independent after being tossed off the GOP primary ballot.
At Knotts’ home precinct at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in West Columbia, Margaret Schwuchow came from Charleston to aid Shealy’s petition drive.
“It was a clerical error,” Schwuchow told a voter. “The challenge against Katrina Shealy threw hundreds people off the ballot.”
The argument failed to convince some voters.
“This is their own fault,” said Ed Shull, who runs a document-shredding business.
Shull said Knotts has assisted family and friends with issues ranging from driver’s licenses to Social Security over the years: “He has an office that helps people.”
“He could beat Miss Shealy without being part of this,” Shull added.
Knotts’ chances also were helped by the restructuring of District 23. That redrawing eliminated from District 23 precincts in the towns of Lexington and Gilbert that went for Shealy in 2008.
Knotts – a former law enforcement officer – is popular in the district, where he is known for his no-nonsense manner that, sometimes, can go over the line into racism, such as calling the Indian-born Haley a “rag head.”
“He’s a little crude,” said John Fetner, a retired maintenance supervisor from Red Bank. “But he’s not afraid to say what a lot of people are thinking.”
While Knotts may escape Shealy again, other S.C. officeholders might not be so lucky in fending off fed-up voters, angered by the eligibility debacle that started in Lexington.
“There’s a feeling (among voters) that a lot of elections are rigged,” Clemson political science professor David Woodard said.