COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s last free-standing lieutenant governor’s race might get more attention than usual in 2014 with some marquee names vying for the state’s No. 2 spot.
Two high-profile politicians have announced they plan to run – Republican incumbent Glenn McConnell, for more than a decade the Legislature’s most influential state senator, and Democratic state Rep. Bakari Sellers, a rising star in his party.
The 2014 election is the last time that candidates will be able to run solo for lieutenant governor, a part-time position with little power that normally attracts little attention. Starting in 2018, the lieutenant governor will be elected on the same ticket that includes the governor, like the president and vice president are now.
The 2014 lieutenant governor’s race also could get more attention – and more money – if no major candidates emerge to challenge Republican U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, both up for election next year, said GOP political consultant Luke Byars. “It’s a great platform to run for statewide office without having to run for governor.”
Beyond McConnell and Sellers, a handful of other candidates are considering running for lieutenant governor in 2014.
Others reportedly mulling bids include state Reps. Mia McLeod, D-Richland and Todd Atwater, R-Lexington, and Bill Connor, an Orangeburg attorney who lost the 2010 Republican runoff for lieutenant governor to Ken Ard.
Ard resigned last year and pleaded guilty to misusing campaign money, leading to the constitutionally mandated promotion of McConnell, then-Senate president pro tem McConnell after three decades in the Legislature’s upper house.
McConnell, a 65-year-old retired attorney who co-owned a Civil War memorabilia shop in Charleston, would be running statewide for the first time. The same is true for Sellers, the 28-year-old son of Cleveland Sellers, a civil rights activist imprisoned after the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre.
The contrasts within that story line alone could make for good political theater.
“You have a Confederate veteran re-enactor versus someone whose father was thrown in jail during the civil rights movement,” Winthrop political scientist Scott Huffmon said. “You can’t stop these stories from writing themselves.”
McConnell plans to run for lieutenant governor even though he is a leading candidate to succeed S.C. Supreme Court Justice Jean Toal, expected to retire in 2015 if she wins a new term next year.
“If he were not in the race, it would be a free-for-all,” S.C. GOP chairman Chad Connelly said of McConnell and the lieutenant governor’s race.
McConnell has only $1,800 in his campaign account for lieutenant governor but has $492,000 in his state Senate account, according to the S.C. Ethics Commission.
“A serious (GOP) contender would know better than to take on Glenn McConnell,” Huffmon said. “He knows where all skeletons are buried.”
McConnell says he will run in 2014, in part, because he wants to continue his work with seniors, a focus of the lieutenant governor’s office.
He said he wants to build partnerships between faith-based groups and the government to develop senior centers and assisted-living homes, improve education about senior resources that are available and help people better prepare for retirement. He also is putting together a strategic plan for the S.C. Office of Aging.
“The problem facing us is the coming gray tsunami,” McConnell said. “It is the health challenge of the century.”
Democrats already are spinning the 2014 election as a contest between old South Carolina, represented, they say, by McConnell, and new South Carolina, represented by Sellers.
But Richard Quinn, a GOP political consultant who works for McConnell, said voters need to look beyond the surface stories of age or race.
“A lot of people are involved in (Civil War) re-enactments,” he said. “(McConnell) has a progressive record as a senator.”
Sellers’ announcement that he will run did not surprise those in political circles since he was known to be eying higher office.
“If you’re Bakari, why not go ahead and get an early start in raising money,” Republican consultant Byars said. “You also lay claim to the seat from other Democrats.”
Sellers said if elected, he would advocate for construction of I-73, which will stretch from Michigan to Myrtle Beach, and public schools. “It’s refreshing to have somebody in statewide office who believes in the public school system,” he said.
S.C. Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison said Sellers’ candidacy represents the beginning of a new era of statewide Democratic candidates, interested in improving health care and schools in ways that boost industrial recruitment. “I would love to get a whole generation of leadership,” he said.
The S.C. GOP wasted little time in criticizing Sellers, releasing a YouTube video just minutes after he formally announced his intention to run Thursday. The video includes clips that tie Sellers to President Barack Obama and tidbits from a news report about temporary suspensions of his driver’s license for failing to show up in court for speeding tickets.
Sellers, who has $21,500 in House campaign account, declined to comment on the video.
Sellers. candidacy should help energize African-American voters, critical in helping fellow Democrat Vincent Sheheen and others challenge for statewide office in a non-presidential election year, Winthrop’s Huffmon said.
“Anything that turns out more Democrats can even the playing field,” he said.
But that does not mean Democrats necessarily have a chance at winning a statewide seat, now all held by Republicans.
Quinn compared Sellers – a young, charismatic politician – to President Barack Obama. “If he was a Republican, he might have a chance,” he added.
Sellers said he did not know how much he would coordinate his campaign with presumptive 2014 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Sheheen, a state senator from Kershaw County. But, he added, “We’ll definitely be working together.”
The candidates at the top of the Republican Party’s statewide ticket, on the other hand, are not that close.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, expected to announce this summer that she will week re-election in 2014, had run-ins with McConnell when he was in the Senate. In the most dramatic, McConnell successfully challenged Haley in court in 2011 after she sought to order the Legislature back in session.
The race for lieutenant governor
Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston – The former Senate leader who became lieutenant governor when Ken Ard resigned; McConnell is known for his interest in the Civil War, including re-enactments and the Hunley Confederate submarine
Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg – A charismatic 28-year-old state representative who is considered star in the state Democratic Party; Sellers also is the son of a South Carolina civil rights leaders
Who could get in?
State Rep. Mia McLeod, D-Richland, another rising within the Democratic Party, in part for her criticism of “old guard” leaders
State Rep. Todd Atwater, R-Lexington, elected to 2010 to fill the State House seat previously held by Gov. Nikki Haley
Orangeburg attorney Bill Connor, who lost the 2010 Republican runoff for lieutenant governor to Ken Ard