When South Carolina elects its next governor, the state’s youngest voters — those casting their first ballots in 2018 — will have no memories of the state’s last Democratic chief executive.
Those first-time voters can be forgiven; they were only 2-year-old toddlers when Gov. Jim Hodges lost his re-election bid to Republican Mark Sanford in 2002.
Again, on Tuesday, Democrats saw their hopes dashed of wresting control of the Governor’s Mansion from Republicans, as state Sen. Vincent Sheheen lost his rematch against GOP Gov. Nikki Haley. That race, which saw Sheheen outspent 2-1, was the worst Democratic gubernatorial loss in 24 years.
Other Democrats running statewide were crushed as well. Their GOP opponents won landslide victories, rolling up margins of victory that were about 5 percentage points higher, on average, than in 2010.
S.C. Democrats pinned their hopes for victory Tuesday on increasing voter turnout. Instead, turnout was the lowest in 40 years, leaving some Democrats to say Wednesday that it could be another decade before their party is relevant again.
To rebuild, the party must reach new generations of voters and non-traditional Democratic voters whose interests are similar to the party’s, said Jaime Harrison, state party chairman.
The Democratic Party “can’t be a party of African-Americans alone and be successful,” said Harrison, the party’s first African-American chairman. “That was not the coalition that (Democratic President Barack) Obama pulled together in 2008 and 2012.”
Exit polls showed 60 percent of S.C. voters were upset with Obama – a factor that helped drive GOP victories nationwide, said U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., at his election-night party, where he celebrated beating Democratic state Sen. Brad Hutto by 15 percentage points.
Not long after polls closed, S.C. Democrats turned to talk of rebuilding their party.
“Change isn’t going to come from the results of a single election, but from an enduring effort to lift up our communities,” Sheheen tweeted about 10 p.m.
“We will work to make the Democratic Party relevant again in South Carolina,” said state Rep. Bakari Sellers, who lost his bid to be elected lieutenant governor by almost 18 percentage points to Republican Henry McMaster, a former state attorney general.
Time for ‘soul-searching’
The talk of what Democrats must do now to rebuild their party is similar to what they said they had to do to win Tuesday.
The hope for Democrats, earlier this week, was to get more S.C. voters who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 to vote in Tuesday’s midterm elections. Then, Democrats said, their candidates might have a chance of winning.
Now, Democrats say they need to do a better job of communicating to voters the kind of leadership they would get if they elect a Democrat.
“We’ve got to give voters something to vote for, and not just something to vote against,” Democratic political operative Tyler Jones said, referring to Sheheen’s “you-can’t-trust-Haley” campaign theme.
“It may take a perfect storm for Democrats to win statewide,” Jones added, saying it is time for the party to do some “soul-searching.”
Other Democrats initially said their party’s losses Tuesday were larger than expected. However, given a few hours to digest GOP wins nationwide, they said they were less surprised by those margins.
Lachlan McIntosh, who ran Hutto’s Senate campaign, said a “tidal wave” of angst propelled Republican wins.
McIntosh dismissed the idea that Tuesday’s landslide wins by S.C. Republicans mean the state is so red that Palmetto State Democrats cannot win. Democrats’ chances, he said, “are certainly not great, but not as bad as what the numbers look like.”
Still, S.C. Democrats cannot blame national trends entirely, Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said.
“Certainly, this was almost a Republican wave that they had to deal with,” Huffmon said. “But, the fact is, they focused their strategy on turning out their base, and they failed to do it.”
GOP widening the victory gap
Democrats are all too familiar with statewide losses in South Carolina. They last elected a U.S. senator last century — in 1998, for example.
But in previous contests, the losses were narrower, indicating Democrats could be competitive.
Tuesday’s returns told a different story.
Going into Tuesday, Sheheen had hoped to close, at least, Haley’s victory margin from 2010, when the Camden Democrat lost to the then-little-known GOP state representative by 4.5 percentage points.
Instead, Sheheen lost 56-41.
It was the worst performance by a Democratic candidate for governor since 1990, when GOP Gov. Carroll Campbell beat Democrat Theo Mitchell 70-28.
Despite the lower turnout Tuesday, Haley won roughly the same number of votes as she did in 2010.
She took eight rural counties that Sheheen had won in 2010, including the Democrat’s home county of Kershaw. Haley’s margin of victory also grew to about 180,000 votes, up from 60,000 in 2010.
In Greenville, Anderson and Spartanburg counties alone, Haley’s margin of victory increased by more than 40,000 votes, showing Upstate social conservatives, once wary of Haley, strongly backed the incumbent.
Compared to 2010, Sheheen received more votes in only two counties — Orangeburg and Bamberg, Haley’s birthplace.
‘Taking a page out of history’
GOP consultant and pollster Dave Woodard said the low turnout Tuesday, which led to Democrats getting “blitzed,” was a sign of a “boring” governor’s race. Increasingly, he added, South Carolina is becoming a one-party political system.
But Winthrop pollster Huffmon said there are more Democratic voters in the state – more than 800,000 S.C. voters cast ballots for Obama in 2012, compared to 513,000 for Sheheen Tuesday – but Democrats are not reaching them.
Party building was on the minds of Democratic leaders Wednesday.
Don Fowler, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, said the party needs to educate voters about its positions on issues “on a continuing basis and not just when there is an election.”
Harrison said the party needs to appeal more to young voters – the generations more open to the party’s platform – and white women — who did not show up for Democrats on Tuesday.
The state party has a bench on up-and-coming political talent, he said, but it may take five or 10 years to be viable in statewide races.
Harrison also said the party must fight a growing perception among some S.C. voters “that Democrats are not fighting for them. That is the perception that has to be changed for Democrats to once again to be competitive in this state.”
Harrison said he is hopeful.
“I’m taking a page out of history,” he said Wednesday. “About 25-30 years ago, the Republican Party was in the same shape here in South Carolina that we currently are in now.
“Republicans didn’t have much control of anything.”