COLUMBIA, SC — On Election Day, Beth Bernstein was the only Democratic candidate in South Carolina to defeat an incumbent Republican, defeating four-term state Rep. Joan Brady with 56 percent of the vote.
But what has state politicos talking is not that Bernstein won, but how she won.
The attorney built her campaign as a race against Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, not Brady. In television advertisements, mail pieces and stump speeches, Bernstein pounded voters again and again with one message: A vote for Brady was a vote for Haley.
Voters responded in a big way.
Bernstein won by 12 percentage points in a race that most political observers predicted would be won by a razor-thin margin. Many gave Brady the advantage as an incumbent running in a presidential election year that favored Republicans in South Carolina.
Now that the election is over, Democrats across the state are looking at the Bernstein race as a blueprint on how to run against Haley in 2014.
Meanwhile, Republicans dismiss Bernsteins victory in House District 78 as hardly surprising just a Democrat winning in heavily Democratic Richland County.
Those who think running statewide in South Carolina against a sitting Republican governor with a real record of job creation and true government reform is the same thing as a running a State House race in a massively Democratic district are likely in for a surprise, said Tim Pearson, Haleys former chief of staff and now her campaign consultant. Either way, her focus is elsewhere on things like putting South Carolina back to work and the upcoming legislative session.
For her part, Republican Brady already has made up her mind, too.
Obviously, were all vulnerable, she said.
A blueprint for Democrats
House District 78 is one of the last swing districts in South Carolina. Republicans and Democrats have traded the seat twice since 1999.
(House District 78) can be a microcosm or an indicator of what independent voters in the state may think, said Trav Robertson, a Democratic political consultant who ran Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheens 2010 gubernatorial campaign.
If that is true, independent voters dont think much of Haley.
Bernsteins campaign polled the voters of House District 78 during the campaign and found that close to 70 percent disapproved of her, according to Tyler Jones, who works for the House Democratic Caucus and monitored Bernsteins campaign.
She was pretty toxic, Jones said of Haley. So you know, just like any campaign would, you look at polling and you adjust your campaign.
Bernstein attacked Haley on two fronts: education and ethics.
Bernstein hit Haley twice in her first television ad.
With soft piano music playing in the background, Bernstein said our leaders embarrass us as the screen showed an unflattering, black-and-white picture of Haley beneath the headline ethics commission probes Haley money. In one of Bernsteins many campaign mail pieces, the headline read: Joan Brady and Nikki Haley have a long record of ethics problems.
Also, in her first TV ad, as children played on a playground behind her, Bernstein said its time to end Nikki Haleys assault on public education a reference to the governors support of school choice.
Bernstein is not shy about it: She ran against Haley, and she thinks other Democrats can, too.
It ... sends the message that (Brady) was tied to Nikki Haley, and people are against the policies of Nikki Haley, she said.
If nothing else, Bernsteins campaign was a trial run for some lines of attack that Democrats plan to lob at Haley in 2014. Democrats seem pleased with the results and will look to expand those attack lines over the next two years.
You are going to see Democrats making her an issue, said Lachlan McIntosh, a Democratic consultant who could be running a campaign against Haley in two years.
A political misunderstanding
But that strategy is a gamble for Democrats.
If theyre right, it could pay off big time in two years. If they are wrong, it will go down as one of the states biggest political misunderstandings.
Start with the fact that Richland County is a Democratic County. It has voted for the Democratic candidate in every presidential and gubernatorial election since 1996.
Republicans in Richland County are an endangered species. In 2006, Richlands lone county-wide elected Republican, former Solicitor Barney Giese, switched parties to become a Democrat. Two years later, Democrat Anton Gunn turned House District 79 into a Democratic seat and Democrat Jim Manning defeated Republican incumbent Mike Montgomery for County Council.
This year, long-time Republican County Councilwoman Val Hutchinson lost to Democrat Julie Ann Dixon. Bernsteins victory over Republican Brady leaves the county with just five Republican office holders: County Council members Bill Malinowski and Greg Pearce, state Sen. John Courson and state Reps. Kirkman Finlay and Nathan Ballentine.
During that time, House District 78 has been tossed back and forth between Democrats and Republicans, proof of its independent-minded electorate. But Haley has never been popular in that district. In 2010, she won just 39 percent of the votes in the district.
Those factors make Richland County unique, GOP strategists say.
Democrats are probably onto a flawed strategy to think they can run the kind of campaign statewide that they ran in the Midlands and get identical results, veteran Republican strategist Richard Quinn said. There is just a much higher percentage of independents and ticket splitters (in Richland County) than you would find among whites elsewhere.
And Haley already has started an effort to blunt some possible attacks.
A priority for lawmakers in January will be changing the states ethics laws. The S.C. House and state Senate have three legislative committees that are meeting on the subject and drafting legislation.
But Haley got in front of the issue this summer, touring the state with Republican Attorney General Alan Wilson to unveil her own ethics reform ideas. Also, last month, Haley created the S.C. Commission on Ethics Reform to recommend ethics reform legislation by Jan. 28, which Haley undoubtedly will embrace.
The tide also could be turning on school choice.
Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed a school choice bill for the first time in its history. That bill later died in the Senate. But Republicans are sending a slate of new senators to Columbia in January, and some most notably Lexington Countys Katrina Shealy are yes votes on school choice that are replacing no votes.
Once the election is over
For all of Bernsteins attacks on Haley, the Forest Acres attorney had never met the Republican governor until last week.
On Wednesday, Bernstein said she was one of about 40 new House members invited to the Governors Mansion for a dinner. Bernstein described the governor as warm and friendly, and said the tone of the dinner was less about partisan politics and more about how we all fought hard to be there and we all have a common goal of moving South Carolina forward.
Thats how Im going to approach it, Bernstein said. I do want to quit being so divisive and partisan. I really want to try to work with both parties to move South Carolina forward.
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.