State Sen. Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, will be sworn in as South Carolina’s 87th lieutenant governor Tuesday.
As he replaces Ken Ard, who resigned Friday, McConnell will go from president pro tem of the state Senate — one of the most powerful people in state government — to a post often mocked for its insignificance.
But McConnell could be planning his return to the Senate before he utters a word of the oath of office.
In a day filled with twists and turns, Ard resigned Friday and McConnell — as required by the state Constitution — became lieutenant governor.
That seemingly sets up a contest Tuesday between two of the Senate’s most veteran members — Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, and Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence — to succeed McConnell.
But outside his Columbia Senate office, McConnell left open the possibility of resigning as lieutenant governor and seeking his Senate seat again. McConnell could run again for his Senate seat and, if elected, resign as lieutenant governor, a possibility he alluded to Friday.
“In my opinion, it’s a sacrifice,” a visibly shaken McConnell said Friday about becoming lieutenant governor upon Ard’s resignation.
McConnell added that whoever succeeds him as Senate president pro tem “need(s) to understand they could be faced with a similar decision.”
Later, at a news conference in Charleston, McConnell backed off that comment, telling reporters he would not file this year to seek re-election to his Senate seat.
Asked if he might run again for Senate or, perhaps, governor, McConnell said he was not closing the door on anything, adding his job now is to be lieutenant governor.
However, the possibility of McConnell resigning as lieutenant governor could loom large Tuesday, when Republican state senators will gather in a closed-to-the-public meeting to decide who they will back to be the Senate president pro tem — next in line, after the largely ceremonial lieutenant governor, for the governor’s office.
“I’m sure it will make some people think twice who are considering offering for president pro tem,” said Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley.
The Senate president pro tem wields immense power in state government.
He — the Senate is all male — settles disputes on the Senate floor. And, when there is disagreement between the House and the Senate on a particular bill, he picks the senators who will join House members on a conference committee and try to reach a compromise. That power can carry huge sway over the state’s $6 billion general fund budget and total spending of $21 billion.
McConnell was elected to the Senate in 1981. He was elected president pro tem in 2001 after the late state Sen. Verne Smith switched parties, giving Republicans a majority. McConnell also was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which reviews nearly half the bills that reach the Senate floor.
Several senators said they expect Tuesday’s vote for a new Senate leader to be between Leatherman, head of the Senate Finance Committee that writes the Senate’s version of the state budget every year, and Peeler, elected Senate majority leader in 2005. Leatherman, a Democrat turned Republican, previously had held that post, and Peeler’s ascension was the source of some tension.
Multiple attempts to reach Leatherman and Peeler Friday were unsuccessful.
“They’re senior Republicans. And, apparently, they both want it,” said Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, adding he will support Peeler, whose brother Bob was S.C. lieutenant governor for eight years.
Republicans hold 27 of the Senate’s 46 seats, giving them the power to name the next Senate leader if they vote as a bloc. But if the Republican state senators are divided, then the Senate’s 19 Democrats, who often vote together, could determine the next Senate leader.
Phil Bailey, executive director of the Senate Democratic Caucus, said he did not expect a Democrat to make a run for president pro tem.
For months, speculation has swirled that McConnell would step down temporarily as president pro tem if Ard resigned. That would have allowed state senators to elect someone else to become lieutenant governor and, afterward, for McConnell to resume his post as Senate leader.
But that would have opened McConnell up to criticism, given his repeated professions of loyalty to the state’s Constitution, which requires the president pro tem succeed the lieutenant governor.
“I came here with a deep commitment to the Constitution, and I will not abandon it today,” McConnell said in a statement Friday.
Later, he added, “All of us need to be aware of our higher calling.”
Staff writer Gina Smith and The Associated Press contributed to this report.