Republican Gov. Nikki Haley's approval rating soared last year in the aftermath of the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House grounds. Haley is aiming to cash in Tuesday on that popularity and her fundraising ability, hoping to oust powerful Republican state senators she has clashed with on roads, ethics reform and other issues.
Meanwhile, in the Upstate, the S.C. Chamber of Commerce is trying to oust firebrand libertarian state Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg. Also, the GOP chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee has drawn three challengers.
The result? Five key races to watch statewide Tuesday – all in the state Senate – and three more to watch closely in the Midlands.
The firebrand versus getting things done
State Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, is known for making headlines, including introducing an unsuccessful proposed statewide ban this year on transgender people using the bathroom of their choice.
Bright’s incendiary politics have drawn three GOP challengers – Greer financial adviser David McGraw, Duncan Mayor Lisa Scott and former state Rep. Scott Talley of Moore, an attorney.
In the battle of would-be senators, who say they will focus on getting things done, versus a libertarian ideologue, the S.C. Chamber of Commerce’s political committee and Conservation Voters of South Carolina also are opposing Bright.
It’s Climer vs. Hayes, but also Haley vs. McMaster
State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, is regarded as a leader on the effort to strengthen state ethics laws and a public education advocate. However, Gov. Haley has endorsed Hayes’ opponent, Rock Hill financial adviser Wes Climer.
Other S.C. GOP heavyweights – including Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, schools superintendent Molly Spearman and the Senate Republican Caucus – are backing Hayes.
A former York County Republican Party chairman, the 33-year-old challenger is taking on a 63-year-old incumbent who has been in the state Senate since 1991, and previously served in the House from 1985 to 1991.
State’s most powerful pol vs. the governor
Senate President Pro Tempore Leatherman also chairs the Senate’s powerful budget-writing Finance Committee. He and Haley are not fans of each other. Haley has made Leatherman a prime target and is backing former Florence County GOP chairman Richard Skipper, who is challenging Leatherman. Florence County Treasurer Dean Fowler also is running.
Leatherman has the backing of other GOP leaders – House Speaker Jay Lucas, Spearman and McMaster, who perhaps has his eye on building alliances for the 2018 governor’s race.
Judiciary Committee chairman faces 3 challengers
State Sen. Larry Martin, the Pickens Republican who chairs the Senate’s powerful Judiciary Committee, has drawn three primary challengers: Donald Joslyn, an Army veteran who has worked in politics with the Anderson County GOP; Allan Quinn, also an Army veteran and a retired Oconee Nuclear Station employee; and Rex Rice, a former state representative who owns a construction and land development company, and cattle farm.
Rice ran unsuccessfully as a petition candidate against Martin in 2012.
Haley is not opposing Martin, and the Senate Republican Caucus is weighing in on the incumbent’s behalf, trying to persuade voters to re-elect Martin.
War by the shore – over ethics?
State Sen. Luke Rankin, a Myrtle Beach attorney who chairs the Senate Ethics Committee, has drawn Haley’s opposition because, she says, he has blocked her on ethics reform.
The 54-year-old Republican, who has been in the Senate for 23 years, faces a primary challenge from financial adviser Scott Pyle, who has the support of Haley and the limited-government Club for Growth group.
Another fundraising group is supporting Rankin, as is fellow Republican McMaster.
Midlands House races to watch
In the Midlands, three key races are at stake:
Lexington House District 69
GOP State Rep. Rick Quinn has a primary challenger in Ryan Holt.
The 50-year-old Quinn, who has been in the House for a combined 20 years including a stint as House majority leader, is the scion of a family of S.C. GOP operatives. The incumbent says he wants to fix the state’s roads.
The 31-year-old Holt, an attorney and Lexington County Medical Center board member, says he wants to continue restructuring state government, giving the executive branch more authority over agencies and having legislators give more oversight of those agencies.
Richland House District 79
Three Democrats are vying to succeed state Rep. Mia McLeod, who is vacating her Northeast Richland House seat to run for the state Senate in November.
The candidates are:
▪ Monica Elkins, a Richland 2 school board member and 25-year educator, who says she wants to improve schools
▪ Pastor and chiropractor Ivory Thigpen, who says he wants to heal racial tensions, address domestic abuse and drug abuse, and expand funding of health care and education
▪ Columbia attorney Vannie Williams, who unsuccessfully challenged McLeod for the seat in 2014 and says he want to focus on improving schools and health care
Lexington House District 89
Four candidates are seeking the GOP nomination for the House seat held by state Rep. Kenny Bingham, who is retiring, in a district that stretches across Cayce and West Columbia.
The candidates are:
▪ Former Lexington County Councilman Bill Banning, who won’t rule out a gas tax hike to pay to repair roads
▪ Prosecutor Micah Caskey, who wants to address the state’s underfunded pension system
▪ Attorney and West Columbia City Councilman Tem Miles, who favors lower taxes and ethics reform
▪ Attorney and former West Columbia County Councilman Billy Oswald, who favors term limits and opposes tax hikes