When the history is written, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen will perhaps rate a footnote as the Democrat who ran against, and lost twice to, South Carolina’s first female governor, Republican Nikki Haley.
In Tuesday’s race, Sheheen didn’t even carry his home county of Kershaw, losing it by 310 votes to Haley as she crushed Sheheen statewide, 55 percent to 41 percent.
The race, which saw Sheheen outspent 2-1, was the worst Democratic gubernatorial loss in 24 years.
As the party tries to regroup and look ahead to 2018, it’s hard to say who might emerge as the gubernatorial nominee.
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“Good Lord! I have no idea,” said S.C. Democratic Party executive director Jaime Harrison. “Four years from now, a whole lot can change.”
But Harrison did tick off a list of possibilities, among them state Sens. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, and Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington; state Reps. James Smith, D-Richland, and Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg; and even mayors Steve Benjamin of Columbia and Steve Wukela of Florence.
“But before we can get to that,” Harrison said, “we have a U.S. Senate race to get to. We’ve got to find a candidate for that.”
Dick Harpootlian, veteran politico and former S.C. Democratic Party executive director, said it’s hard to predict who the party might put up for governor in four years.
“Who’s going to play in the Super Bowl four years from now? Who is going to be your editor in four years?” Harpootlian said. “Answer that.”
Efforts to reach Sheheen about his plans were unsuccessful late last week. Family and friends said they expect him to plunge back into his law practice and state Senate duties.
On Election Day morning, with a confident smile, he had predicted a close race.
“Everybody knows this election is going to be decided within 1 or 2 points,” he told reporters gathered outside Hobkirk precinct near downtown Camden. “I’m excited.”
One of the few bright spots for Sheheen on Election Day was taking to the polls his twin sons, Austin and Joseph, both Clemson students, and seeing them cast their first votes.
Asked about Sheheen running again, Harrison said, “I’m thinking Vincent’s probably not going to run for governor again.”
Sellers, who lost the lieutenant governor’s race to Henry McMaster, 58 percent to 41 percent, said it is too early to tell what lies ahead for the party, and Democrats who ran this year are too exhausted from a year’s campaigning to start thinking about that now.
But Sellers mentioned the same possible candidates as Harrison for 2018, adding only Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston.
Sellers declined to say whether he would specifically consider running for governor.
“That’s too far out,” said Sellers who, since he lost to McMaster, wasn’t re-elected to the House. “I haven’t thought about that, but I will be involved in South Carolina politics for a very long period of time. But we have to figure out a way to rebuild our party.”
Democrats were hit by what amounted to a perfect storm: voter apathy, with the lowest voter turnout in 40 years; mid-term elections; antipathy toward President Obama; and a candidate who lacked Haley’s charisma.
“The fellow (Sheheen) never had a chance – she was the incumbent, it was the wrong year and there wasn’t a lot of excitement about this,” said Neal Thigpen, veteran S.C. political observer and retired Francis Marion University political science professor.
Democrat Smith of Richland County noted that Republicans swept gubernatorial seats across the country, even in traditionally Democratic states like Massachusetts and Maryland. “A tide like that is insurmountable. It was of historic proportions.”
In coming weeks and months, talk of the Democrats’ future in the next governor’s race is likely to come up.
One strange bit of political gossip that some have heard – apparently false – is that Sheheen, Lourie and Smith have had a plan in which each one would run for governor twice.
Asked about that last week, Lourie said, “That’s the most bizarre story I’ve ever heard. That puts me at having to wait 16 years to have a shot at the governor’s seat. That’s fun and imaginative, but it is absurd.”
Smith burst out laughing when asked about the rumor.“There are a thousand political lifetimes between now and the next election. Nobody has any Grand Plan.”
Smith added that trying to predict about a distant future is pointless.
“In 2008, everyone was speculating nationally that it was all over for the Republicans. Now look at them. Parties shouldn’t mistake an election like this for a mandate.”