COLUMBIA, SC — The presidential election will get most of the attention Tuesday, but an arguably more important contest for South Carolina also will be settled at ballot boxes across the state: control of the state Senate.
Yes, Republicans already have a solid majority in the Senate and could increase that majority after Election Day. But the Senate actually is ruled by a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans. That coalition elected state Sen. John Courson as president pro tempore of the Senate in March by a 27-17 vote, the first Richland County senator ever to lead the Senate.
But a handful of the senators who voted for Courson over Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, could be replaced Tuesday. Other Courson supporters are retiring from the Senate.
The Courson supporters could be succeeded by younger, more conservative Republicans. If elected, the younger Republicans likely will join the Senates William Wallace caucus, the name that state Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, gave to the coalition of Senate GOP conservatives, some with Tea Party and libertarian roots, who want more conservative reforms, including school choice.
Yes, it could happen. A lot of the (senators) who voted for John Courson last time might not be there this year, said Wesley Donehue, communications director for the Senate Republican Caucus. Under those scenarios, I think Peeler could win as president pro tem, a post with the power to influence heavily the Senates agenda.
Dick Elliott, the longtime Democratic senator from Horry County, is retiring after 30 years in the Legislature. Elliott, who voted for Courson as president pro tem, likely will be succeeded by Republican Greg Hembree, the 15th Circuit solicitor who Gov. Nikki Haley, a sometimes Tea Party darling, has endorsed.
• Jake Knotts, the Lexington County Republican senator who voted for Courson, is in a tough re-election campaign against petition candidate Katrina Shealy, the former chairwoman of the Lexington County Republican Party. Shealy has been endorsed by Haley, and a political action committee affiliated with the governor has paid for direct-mail supporting Shealy.
• Phil Leventis, a veteran Democrat from Sumter who supported Courson, is retiring after 31 years in the Senate. The race to replace Leventis is one of the most contested and most watched legislative races in the state. Republican businessman Tony Barwick, who Haley has endorsed, and Democratic attorney Thomas McElveen each raised have more than $100,000, spending most of it on television and direct-mail advertisements.
• Nikki Setzler, a rare Lexington County Democrat who supported Courson, is in a fight with Republican Deedee Vaughters of Aiken to keep his Senate seat. Haley has campaigned for Vaughters, and a political action committee affiliated with Haley has spent thousands of dollars on television advertisements attacking Setzler.
David Thomas, a Greenville County senator and Courson supporter, lost in Junes Republican primary. He will be succeeded by fellow Republican Ross Turner, who is running unopposed.
• Glenn McConnell, the former president pro tem of the Senate, was elevated to lieutenant governor in March after former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard resigned and subsequently entered a guilty plea to ethics laws violations. McConnell, who did not vote in the president pro tem race, will be succeeded either by Republican Paul Thurmond or Democrat Paul Tinkler.
Likely Senate newcomers say they have not yet considered who they will support as leader.
Hembree, the 15th Circuit solicitor who likely will replace Elliott, said he has not thought much about the issue.
Ive known John Courson. He was our senator at one time way back, when he first got elected, early in his career. And I know Sen. Peeler really well, too, Hembree said. I have no idea if (the election) would lead to a change with Sen. Courson. ... (But) you change a fourth of the body, or nearly a fourth of the body, especially for the Senate ... there is no question it will have a pretty significant effect.
Attempts to reach Peeler were unsuccessful. Other senators contacted by The State newspaper noted there is not a contested race for president pro tem at the moment.
Courson said senators have asked him if he plans to run again for Senate president. He does.
While Courson said he has not asked anyone for their support, he has started reaching out to some new senators -- including Republican Sean Bennett in Dorchester County, who defeated GOP incumbent Mike Rose in the June primary.
Courson said he is confident he will win re-election as president pro tem but is focused, instead, on his own re-election to Senate, where he faces a well-funded Democratic challenger, Robert Rikard. Courson added four or five senators who did not vote for me last time volunteer they would support me if I would run again.
He also hopes to get the support of Paul Thurmond, if Thurmond wins, and soon-to-be state Sen. Tom Young.
Courson had a personal relationship with Thurmonds father, the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond. And Young a state representative who is running unopposed to replace state Sen. Greg Ryberg, R-Aiken worked as a page for Courson when Young was in college.
Young said Friday that he has not heard the first thing about a contested race for Senate president pro tem. He declined to speculate who is going to run.
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.