LEXINGTON COUNTY, SC — Its common to see State Sen. Nikki Setzlers campaign signs mixed among others promoting Republicans in dozens of yards in Lexington County.
That blend underscores a popularity that has enabled the Democrat to withstand persistent GOP efforts to oust him during 36 years as a lawmaker.
But that sentiment is being tested as Setzler faces Republican Deedee Vaughters of Aiken in a showdown on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Its a contest of contrasts for voters in Senate District 26, composed of parts of Lexington and three other counties.
Setzler promotes himself as a caring conservative.
Vaughters, a favorite of the Tea Party and social conservatives, says he is not conservative enough.
Setzler is banking on deep-seated family roots in the area to parry a barrage of personal attacks.
People here know me, that Im part of the community, he said, a theme thats part of ads to offset claims he is getting rich at taxpayer expense.
His family ran restaurants in Cayce and West Columbia, including a drive-in at which Setzler sometimes could be found serving ice cream cones until it closed in 1994.
Vaughters hopes support from Gov. Nikki Haley helps counter any benefit Setzler may enjoy from that.
Meanwhile, divergent outlooks between the candidates are coming to the forefront.
Amazon and more
To Setzler, the drumbeat of criticism stems from his success in overcoming opposition to a sales tax collection exemption given to Amazon.
The online retailer wanted that break to open a distribution center near Cayce last year that is bringing hundreds of new jobs to the Midlands.
This is all about Amazon, he said. Many of these groups didnt want it to happen.
Vaughters is a former leader of the South Carolina Policy Council, a group opposed to corporate incentives like those for Amazon.
Haley didnt like the break given Amazon but accepted it, since it was included in the deal made by her predecessor.
But a new political action committee created by her allies and business groups who favor Republicans are launching an ad blitz targeting Setzler that he estimates will be as much as a $200,000 shot at him.
In part, their ads rap him for taking a legislative pension that is triple the legislative salary of $10,400. The tactic has worked elsewhere.
Setzler is one of 19 senators who did so, leading to a change that bans the practice in the future.
He also is under fire from those sources for $131 in daily expenses allotted lawmakers intended to pay for room and meals when his residence is less that five miles from the State House.
Setzler declined to discuss the situation except to say he declares the expenses as income and pays taxes on it .
Vaughters promises to donate the legislative salary to charity and reject expenses reimbursement except for mileage.
She also pledged to serve as a senator no more than 12 years.
Both candidates have thrown elbows at each other.
Setzlers campaign lost an attempt in court to force Vaughters off the ballot for alleged failure to file ethics reports on personal income properly.
Vaughters has taken out a billboard near Setzlers law office and home scolding him for refusing to debate her.
Setzler said his style is to go door-to-door instead of participating in forums and staged events.
Vaughters say she has knocked on more than 9,100 doors.
Left unsaid is that the shots at Setzler may be about more than Amazon.
His survival in a GOP stronghold rankles rabid Republicans.
Setzler also is in position to become the Democratic leader in the Senate next year.
He is among a handful of centrist lawmakers who decry rising partisanship.
We dont need the gridlock here that we see in Washington, he said of Congress. We need more bipartisan cooperation.
Vaughters intends to be a sister to the back-row boys, a group of senators who disdain compromise on conservative ideals.
Setzlers goals if re-elected include:
• Finding ways to bring more jobs, saying the effort to attract Amazon is a catalyst increasing cooperation in the Midlands for that.
• Helping educators adapt to instruction using the Internet. We need to do things differently, to adjust to our instantly changing world.
• Continuing to restructure state operations to make them more efficient and effective.
• Updating political ethics standards.
Vaughters goals echo those of many conservatives:
• Making lawmakers disclose which companies pay them as consultants and how much they earn in those respective roles, a practice for which Haley got into trouble.
• Opposing upcoming changes in health care, a federal plan on which lawmakers have little say.
• Halving five-month legislative sessions.
• Ending health insurance and pensions for lawmakers.
• Abolishing the Budget and Control Board and turn over its job to an agency under gubernatorial control.
Edge for Setzler?
The contest is taking place in a district that Setzler like other incumbents reshaped to his liking.
Those changes are made every 10 years to reflect population shifts.
The reshaped district stretches across four counties Lexington, Calhoun, Aiken and Saluda.
Just over 60 percent of its population is in Lexington County, an area that includes West Columbia, Cayce, Springdale, Gaston, Swansea and Dixiana.
New is the northern half of Democratic-leaning Calhoun. The plan retains the Ridge Spring area in Saluda while expanding further into Vaughters home area in northern Aiken.
Slightly less than a third of the population is in the Aiken area, but Vaughters isnt fazed at the advantage that Setzler may enjoy.
Its poised to flip, she said.
Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.