Molly Spearman, Sally Atwater seek support and votes from ousted candidates

ccope@thestate.comJune 11, 2014 

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In order to win the Republican nomination for superintendent of education, runoff opponents Sally Atwater and Molly Spearman will need a little help from some of their one-time foes.

“(You) hope that some of your former opponents become your friends and endorse you,” Citadel political scientist Scott Buchanan said.

Atwater and Spearman will contend for some of the votes that went to the six defeated candidates Tuesday so one of them can face one of two Democrats in their runoff, Sheila Gallagher or Tom Thompson.

The day after the primary, four of the former Republican superintendent candidates were undecided or planned to remain neutral regarding who they support in the runoff race. However, two previous challengers said they were leaning toward Atwater.

Spearman, who topped Atwater by less than 1,500 votes on Tuesday, said to beat her opponent June 24, “it’s going to take the people who want to see education move forward by someone who’s lived here.”

Atwater, who worked for the U.S. departments of Education and Health and Human Services, moved back to South Carolina where she has taught special-needs students in Colleton County for the past two years.

Atwater got a quick pick-up when Anderson County Board of Education member Gary Burgess, who came in fourth, called after primary results were released Tuesday to offer his support.

“He made the declaration that he was a true Republican and would be glad to support me in any way,” said Atwater, widow of famed GOP operative Lee Atwater.

Spearman was elected as a Democrat to the S.C. House in 1992 and switched to the Republican Party in 1995.

Burgess criticized Spearman’s support of adding student test data to teacher evaluations. Spearman said she supports teacher evaluations that have multiple measures.

“It has to be a flashlight, not a hammer,” she said.

Sheri Few, who was in third place Tuesday, said she and Spearman are too far apart on the issues.

The head of the nonprofit South Carolina Parents Involved in Education said she planned to talk to Atwater about her stance on Common Core, the state-based education standards that Few has opposed strongly, before deciding whether to make an endorsement.

“I think she’s rather weak on that issue,” Few said.

Atwater said she opposes Common Core, which has been a hot issue throughout the campaign.

“As a special-needs teacher, I know firsthand one size does not fit all,” she said. “We need more choices for parents and less interference from the federal government."

Few said she will decide whether to simply endorse Atwater or rally her grassroots effort to support her.

Spearman also opposes Common Core but believes some parts in the standards could be used. She said the state should set its own standards and testing based on input from S.C. parents, teachers and businesses.

The rest of the Republican candidates defeated in Tuesday’s primary either had not decided who to endorse or planned to stay neutral.

Meka Childs, who was deputy superintendent under current state education superintendent Mick Zais, will speak with both candidates soon, her campaign spokesman RJ May said.

Don Jordan, a math professor at the University of South Carolina, said he had not decided if he would have an endorsement.

Amy Cofield, an attorney and former teacher, and Elizabeth Moffly, who lost her third bid for superintendent on Tuesday, said they would remain neutral.

In addition to campaign issues, both Spearman and Atwater will have to battle low turnout in the runoff. A runoff in South Carolina is an extra challenge because candidates only have two weeks, Buchanan said.

Turnout in the runoff will likely be even lower June 24 than on Tuesday, when about 16 percent of registered voters showed up at the polls, according to the State Election Commission.

“I congratulated those people that actually went in to vote yesterday,” Atwater said Wednesday. “We need turnout.”

Reach Cope at (803) 771-8657.

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