The year 2012 will be remembered as the year of the South Carolina incumbent.
But anti-incumbent forces are hoping simmering, sometimes boiling, anger over June’s primary debacle – when nearly 250 candidates were tossed off primary ballots for failing to file their paperwork properly – will rear its head in 2014, forming an anti-incumbent tidal wave.
They may not have to wait that long, however, to see if that wave is forming.
In Lexington County, nine candidates, tossed out of the June primary, will be on the November ballot as petition candidates, challenging incumbents.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley of Lexington, fresh off two winning endorsements in local races during June’s primary, is expected to wade into one of those Lexington County contests, which pits a Haley ally against one of the first-term governor’s most persistent GOP critics, state Sen. Jake Knotts.
The outcome of November’s race between Knotts and Haley ally Katrina Shealy, a petition candidate, could give incumbents elsewhere in South Carolina a preview of what is to come in 2014.
‘People ... don’t like it’
After nearly 250 challengers were removed from June primary ballots, most incumbents around the state sailed to primary victories in June, many winning without one debate or community forum or mailing a single campaign flier to voters.
But those incumbents will be in big trouble in 2014 as challengers and voters seek out the change they think they were denied this cycle, predicts Ashley Landess, director of the SC Policy Council, a Columbia think tank that espouses limited government and libertarian-leaning politics.
“All of these people just get thrown off the ballot? That’s not right and people know it, and they don’t like it,” said Landess. “If candidates have learned anything from this, it’s how to organize and how to be ready for the next primary.”
Landess says the spurned challengers are just the latest chapter in the larger narrative of a corrupt SC political process that must be changed. June’s primary debacle will provide fodder, she predicts, for a growing statewide movement intent on increasing government transparency and accountability.
“SC politicians have been hoping for the last few years that this energy (aimed at changing government) would go away,” Landess said. “They’ve been predicting that all of these people all over the state would get tired, and they haven’t. And, as they become more frustrated, they become more motivated.”
‘People tend to forget’
Others, however, doubt the 2012 primary debacle will be produce a future groundswell.
“The coal-fueled fire that is electoral anger has to be fed over the long haul,” said Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political scientist. “So you’ll need people shoving coal onto that fire between now and the next primaries to keep that anger flowing. That’s going to be tough to do.
“In two years, we’re going to be engulfed in a gubernatorial race, and that will keep the attention of the average vote far more than this.”
If Huffmon is right, the 2014 election cycle will not be that different from those in the past, where, in most election years, incumbents win big. Many do not even face challengers.
Still, several SC political strategists predict the groundswell could build and affect future races in isolated spots, where ballot outrage is particularly strong.
They point specifically to Senate District 23 race in November between incumbent state Sen. Knotts and petition challenger Shealy.
The fiery Shealy is one of nine Lexington County candidates disqualified from the GOP primary who gathered enough voter signatures to appear on the November ballot and take on incumbents.
But Shealy is skeptical that voters will remember the ballot debacle in four years, when the Senate next holds primaries. “People tend to forget,” she said. “I don’t think it will necessarily be on people’s minds.”
‘You’ve got to know the rules’
Instead, Shealy hopes the debacle is on their minds in November.
“I hope people take it to heart this time,” she said. “A lot of good people were thrown off the ballot. It’s not just about me. It’s about a lot of people who deserved better.”
Meanwhile, Shealy is moving onto the next phase in her campaign, talking about tax reform and government restructuring.
Knotts has a different take on the ballot debacle.
He says voters know following rules is an important part of being a lawmaker.
“There’s more to running for office than putting your name on the line,” Knotts said. “You’ve got to know the rules, and if you don’t know what the law is and the rules, how can you be expected to make good laws?”
Knotts said his strategy will be to remind voters of what he has done for them.
“I’m going to run on my record and what I’ve done for my district for the last 18 years,” he said. “I’ve got the reputation that if you come into my district and mess with my people, you better be prepared for a fight.”
Lexington wild card?
Shealy will need help if she plans to topple Knotts. Every precinct that Shealy won in her 2008 primary loss to Knotts was removed from District 23 during Senate redistricting in 2011.
But help is expected to come in the form of Haley, a Knotts foe and the highest-profile critic of the state Supreme Court decision to throw out primary challengers.
Haley is likely to hit the campaign trail with Shealy against Knotts.
The Republican governor from Lexington can claim the ability to turn races in her chosen candidate’s favor.
Haley endorsed Horry County Council Chairman Tom Rice over former Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer in the GOP primary runoff to represent the new 7th District in the Grand Strand and Pee Dee. Until the final days of that race, Bauer led, most observers said. But, after Haley endorsed and campaigned with Rice, he handily won 56 percent of the vote in the GOP runoff.
Haley also backed incumbent state Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, over former Sen. John Hawkins, another Haley critic. Internal polling before Haley’s endorsement showed Bright’s primary support at 29 percent, trailing Hawkins at 38 percent.
After Haley endorsed and campaigned with Bright, he took nearly 61 percent of the GOP primary vote.
Reach Smith at (803) 414-1340.