The race between state Sen. Jake Knotts and Katrina Shealy is about a lot of things other than the two candidates.
It is about the 250 candidates statewide who were removed from the June primary ballot – some after they won. It is about Gov. Nikki Haley and her agenda for the next two years, leading up to her re-election campaign. It is about third-party groups bypassing traditional campaign contributions to pay for political advertising. It is about the leadership of one of the Senate’s most powerful committees.
All of that – combined with two fierce rivals – make the Senate District 23 race one of the most entertaining and unpredictable in the state.
Knotts is on the ballot as a Republican, meaning he should benefit from the thousands of straight-party-ticket voters in Republican-heavy Lexington County. More than 30,000 straight-party GOP votes were cast in 2008.
But maybe not this year.
This year, Lexington County -- and Shealy, specifically -- helped launch a statewide wave of petition candidates after the state Supreme Court disqualified about 250 candidates for filing improper paperwork. Lexington County alone has eight petition candidates spread across five races on the Nov. 6 ballot.
“There are so many petition candidates running, it may rewrite any of the rules we normally would subscribe to,” said veteran GOP strategist Warren Tompkins of Columbia. “The old conventional wisdom may not be very conventional right now.”
‘It worked four years ago’
When Knotts and Shealy squared off in the GOP primary and runoff four years ago, school choice was the main issue.
Knotts and Shealy disagree on whether the state should give tax credits to parents who send their children to private schools. Shealy says the credits would let parents choose where and how to educate their children. Knotts says they would deprive public schools of needed money.
This year, Shealy is focusing on Knotts’ role in the lawsuit that removed candidates from the June primary, and Knotts’ subsequent efforts to block legislation that would have fixed that paperwork-filing problem.
Meanwhile, Knotts is focusing on Shealy’s support from out-of-state groups, particularly The Movement Fund, a group of Haley supporters, including mega-donors from Wyoming, New York, Texas and Florida.
It is the same outsiders-are-trying-to-buy-this-election argument that Knotts used four years ago, when New York millionaire Howard Rich, a school-choice advocate, was a major contributor to Shealy’s campaign. “It worked four years ago, so we’re doing it again,” said R.J. Shealy, a political consultant who is helping Knotts’ campaign.
South Carolina’s political power brokers also are watching the race closely too, because it could decide a key domino in the state Senate’s leadership.
State Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, is chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, the starting place for most of the legislation that comes through the Senate. But Martin is in his own tough race against a petition candidate, former state Rep. Rex Rice.
If Martin loses, Knotts – the next most senior member of the committee – would become chairman. If Martin and Knotts both lose, state Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, would become chairman.
‘Biggest decision of my life’
Knotts was born and raised in Cayce to a large, poor family. His father drove a taxi and his mother was a waitress. His parents divorced when he was nine months old, and his mother remarried and raised Knotts as John Webster.
When he was 12, Knotts’ mother could no longer care for her large family. Knotts said he was preparing to go live at Carolina Children’s Home when his aunt took him to a Lake Murray fishing spot and told him about his biological father. Knotts didn’t believe her, so he saved 50 cents from selling apples and got a copy of his birth certificate which, indeed, showed his last name was Knotts.
Instead of going to the children’s home, Knotts went to live with his father.
“It was just a turbulent time for a 12-year-old boy,” Knotts said. “It was the biggest decision of my life.”
After that, Knotts said his goal in life was “to marry one woman and be married to her for a lifetime, have enough kids to enjoy them and take care of them, retire by age 50 and always have benefits.”
In the mid-’90s, Knotts considered running for Lexington County sheriff but decided, instead, to run for the S.C. House. His only previous political experience was an ill-conceived bid for West Columbia City Council, which he launched out of spite because he was angry the city made him “buy a permit to paint my own house.”
Knotts said he was unhappy with state Rep. Lenoir Sturkie and told him so. Sturkie’s response, according to Knotts, was: “If you don’t like how I am representing you, you should run against me.”
And he won.
In 2002, Knotts was elected to the state Senate after Joe Wilson was elected to the U.S. House.
‘Take care of your brother’
Shealy was born and raised in Batesburg-Leesville, the second of three children. Her father owned an insurance agency and a Piggly Wiggly grocery store where, when Shealy was 13, she had her first job.
When Shealy was 15, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. She died four months later. The last time Shealy saw her mother was in a hospital room.
“The last thing mom said to me was, ‘Make sure your brother wears his coat to school,’” Shealy said, which she understood to mean, “Take care of your brother.”
Shealy’s father wanted her to go to college and become a lawyer. But she liked the insurance business, so she decided to work with her father instead of going to college. Now, 38 years later, she still is in the insurance business as an underwriting manager for Davis Garvin Agency.
Shealy decided to run for office, she said, because she was tired of lawmakers naming bridges for people instead of doing things like lowering taxes and improving education.
And Knotts, she said, is part of that problem.
‘I’ve done a lot more good’
Knotts’ career in the Legislature has been as a stumbling block to governors.
Both Sanford and Haley have tried to defeat Knotts, who has been censured by the Lexington County Republican Party. This year, the state Republican Party’s executive committee suspended its rules so it could endorse Shealy.
Knotts loves it.
He sees his GOP primary runoff victory over Shealy four years ago as validation of his brand of personal politics, declaring: “The people in Lexington County are happy with the way I do it.”
But Knotts’ style also has led to some missteps.
Two years ago, the Senate Ethics Committee reprimanded Knotts and ordered him to pay back nearly $25,000 in illegal campaign contributions.
“I’ve done a lot more good than I have bad. I have made mistakes, and I apologize for them. And I did it. That is over, case closed,” Knotts said. “But nothing was done intentional and every dime was accounted for. No money was misspent.”
‘I cannot be bought’
Knotts and Shealy have been preparing for a rematch since 2008.
During the redistricting process last year, Knotts redrew his district to exclude growing areas around the Town of Lexington and Lake Murray – where Shealy had lots of supporters – in favor of the more demographically stable rural areas. In March, a former paid campaign staffer for Knotts filed a lawsuit in the state Supreme Court, asking that Shealy be kicked off the ballot. The lawsuit succeeded, taking Shealy and 250 other candidates across the state off the ballot, and throwing the 2012 elections into chaos.
When the Legislature tried to fix the problem, Knotts and others blocked the fix.
“I was the target of that. It was just to get me off the ballot,” Shealy said. “That was wrong.”
Shealy has benefited from the anti-Knotts’ sentiment, winning big-name endorsements, including Sanford and U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint in 2008, and Haley and the state GOP this year. But she also has had to fight the perception that she is just the puppet of Republican masters who want to get rid of Knotts, no matter who is running against him.
“I’m proud to have the support of anybody who wants to support me, but Katrina Shealy will always support what’s best for Lexington County and the people in District 23,” she said. “I cannot be bought or sold by anybody.”
Shealy has become a leader of sorts of her petition candidates, getting invitations to speak and fundraise with others across the state. She says she has declined most of those invitations so she can focus on campaigning in District 23.
But Shealy’s image as an election martyr took a hit earlier this year when her former campaign consultant, Sheri Few, sued her, saying Shealy owes her thousands of dollars in unpaid fees.
In court documents, Few says that Shealy “has already shown a propensity for saying things which are untrue, even under oath.” Specifically, Few says Shealy was removed from the ballot because of her own incompetence and was not the victim of conflicting state campaign laws.
Shealy dismisses the accusations as just another attack orchestrated by her opponents.
“They just trying to get me off track,” she said. “I’m not going to let that happen.”