In a few weeks, Jake Knotts will be a regular citizen instead of a state senator.
Knotts’ inability to adapt to Lexington County’s changing politics led to an abrupt end to his 18-year career as a redneck icon and a force to be reckoned with locally and at the State House, political leaders say.
Knotts’ loss Tuesday to Republican petition candidate Katrina Shealy in the state Senate District 23 race was unexpected, some allies say.
“I’m shocked,” said Roxanne Wilson, a Knotts adviser and wife of U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson. “I really thought he had it.”
Knott’s loss wasn’t a surprise to others, however.
Some legislative leaders foresaw the loss in mid-October, after private polls showed voters had a highly negative view of Knotts, who expressed hope in 2002, when he became a senator, that he would “be here forever.”
“When you’ve been in office as long as Jake has, you’re going to make a whole lot of people mad,” said state Rep. Rick Quinn of Lexington, a Republican who revived his career after dual losses locally and statewide.
A combination of factors did Knotts in, political leaders say:
His penchant for politics as a contact sport no longer played well.
Miscalculations produced a wave of sympathy for his challenger, Red Bank community leader Katrina Shealy.
The increasing suburbanization of his home area brought in scores of newcomers not enamored with him.
In the end, Knotts was his own worst enemy, friends acknowledge.
For his fans, Knotts is unafraid to tell it like it is.
For his foes, he is combative, belligerent, pugnacious, intimidating, hard-nosed and bombastic.
“You either love him or hate him,” Quinn said.
Knotts is fond of saying “this teddy bear can become a grizzly bear.”
He regularly engaged in high-profile squabbles with fellow Republicans that often were marked by name-calling. His conflicts with Gov. Nikki Haley contributed to his downfall. Knotts got heat for referring to Haley as a “rag head” for her Indian ancestry.
Knotts also shrugged off warnings that he “occasionally overreached,” said Senate President Pro Tem John Courson, R-Richland.
Unlike her predecessor, Gov. Mark Sanford, Haley successfully targeted Knotts after he blocked some of her top agenda items in the Legislature. A political action committee affiliated with Haley spent about $125,000 for Shealy’s campaign.
Much as Haley did in her successful 2004 legislative campaign, Shealy went door-to-door to sell herself to newcomers unfamiliar with Knotts except through unflattering headlines.
Knotts also was damaged by news stories this summer highlighting some local officials’ association with gambling, stories that reminded voters of Knotts’ long-time support for the industry, Quinn said. “A lot of folks raised their eyebrows.”
Tea Party activists, a power within the GOP, also had no use for Knotts, including him among the politicians branded as “Republican-In-Name Only” for his refusal to back their version of fiscal conservatism and tax breaks for parents who send their children to private schools.
Knotts’ ties with some GOP leaders also were frayed by his willingness to sometimes side with Democrats. Last spring, for instance, Knotts and a handful of Senate Republicans combined with the Senate’s minority-party Democrats to elect Courson as Senate leader, defeating the GOP’s candidate for the post.
Finally, Knotts got a black eye in 2010 when he was reprimanded by the Senate Ethics Committee for sloppy handling of campaign contributions that included accepting nearly $25,000 above donation limits.
Mistakes add up
Other missteps by Knotts helped undermine his re-election bid, some supporters say.
Knotts won only eight of the 33 precincts in District 23, reshaped to reflect population shifts documented by the 2010 census but also redrawn by Knotts in a way that he hoped would ease his re-election.
“It was one he personally drew,” Wilson said.
In reshaping the district, Knotts lopped off areas that had favored his opponents in previous contests. But he kept in the district what turned out to be Shealy’s stronghold – the steadily growing Red Bank area, which once was a political strength for Knotts. In redrawing the district, Knotts’ attempted to undermine Shealy, preventing a repeat of his tough 2008 match with her. But the effort backfired, some supporters say.
Resentment festered anew after Knotts’ allies brought a legal challenge that forced Shealy and 250 other candidates across the state off the June 12 primary election ballot for failing to comply with a little-noticed change in ethics rules on disclosure of personal finances. When lawmakers tried to fix the problem, Knotts blocked it.
Those moves created a wave of sympathy for Shealy, political leaders say.
She obtained more than 2,600 signatures from voters within three months to return to the ballot this fall as a petition candidate.
That step allowed her to campaign early while Knotts was tied up with the close of legislative work in the spring.
“Do I think it is poetic justice?” Shealy said of her victory. “I don’t know. I do think there is something to be said for that. But I don’t want to look at it that way. I think that’s over, behind us. Let’s move forward.”
The Knotts camp was stunned when Shealy easily got the signatures needed, and plenty more, on petitions.
“He outsmarted himself,” Batesburg-Leesville Mayor James Wiszowaty said.
Knotts is known for his persistence in helping anyone.
A typical day included solving problems with prescriptions and garbage pickup amid legislative battles over state agency restructuring and the fate of the Confederate flag atop the State House. He sponsored skating parties for honor-roll students, trained homeowners to obtain weapons for self-defense and paid delinquent taxes for needy homeowners.
Knotts saw no problem in testifying as a character witness for police officers accused of improprieties and in persuading a magistrate to drop a domestic violence charge against a man accused of assaulting his wife.
But all of his intended goodwill didn’t pay off this time.
Knotts’ beefy build and blue-collar style isn’t ideal for televised ads, the lifeblood of modern campaigns, friends said.
“His persona comes across as real rough and tough,” said former Batesburg-Leesville councilman David Williams. “He couldn’t overcome that image.”
In particular, friends say, Knotts seems unpopular with mothers concerned about matters that affect their children. The sentiment is so strong that Knotts couldn’t turn the tide despite Shealy’s support for tax breaks that could take away state aid to Lexington 1 classrooms. Wilson, who talks with Knotts several times weekly, agrees he “has a problem with women,” who are turned off by his style.
Many new families coming to the Red Bank area also didn’t know him beyond the image of a crude loudmouth that his foes fanned, political leaders say.
“There’s no question some of his constituents have different sensibilities,” Quinn said.
Friends don’t expect Knotts to sit still.
“He has to have a project,” Wilson said.
Knotts’ experience and connections could open the way for him to become a consultant for municipalities as did a friend, the late Butch Spires.
Knotts is too valuable to stay on the sideline, some say.
“Lexington County has lost a good advocate,” West Columbia Mayor Joe Owens said.
The 67-year-old Knotts spent 52 years in public life, in the Navy and as a police officer, investigator, deputy coroner and lawmaker.
Now, he will have to reinvent himself.
He is interested in a new political role.
It is time, he says, to widen the appeal of a Republican Party that is too beholden to conservative elements that Knotts considers extremist.
“I’m going to do that and see if that works,” he said. “If it don’t work, we might even start another party.”
He doesn’t rule out another run for public office – but he concedes that would be tough.
“Right now, that would take a vote from my family,” Knotts said.
“And I don’t think I’d get that vote.”
Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483. Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.