Politics & Government

‘Sick of waiting,’ SC Democratic candidates face tough odds

Special to The Herald

A librarian. A newly minted Upstate attorney. A pastor and community organizer who struggled with addiction. A Pennsylvanian who came to South Carolina to play college football, went to work for Joe Biden and now calls the Palmetto State home.

Who are they?

They are the best candidates the S.C. Democratic Party could field for November’s congressional elections.

The Democrats are contesting eight congressional races – one for the U.S. Senate and seven for the U.S. House. But, in reality, the hopes of South Carolina’s embattled minority party are focused on one race.

In that race, Tega Cay’s Fran Person, a former University of South Carolina football player, is challenging Republican incumbent Mick Mulvaney of Indian Land for the 5th District congressional seat.

Unlike the other Democratic congressional candidates, Person has proven he can raise money. Person had raised more than $400,000 through the end of June and that was before Vice President Biden, Person’s old boss, came to the state to campaign and fundraise for his former aide.

Other than longtime U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, who has raised $1.7 million for his re-election bid, the remaining Democrats running for Congress have not had Person’s fundraising success.

Most are political newcomers, candidates facing uphill battles, symbols of a once-dominant party reeling from decades of losses.

In recent years, the inability to field serious candidates has embarrassed the S.C. Democratic Party.

In 2010, an unemployed U.S. Army veteran beat a longtime judge for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination. In 2014, a Washington transplant with a felony record moved to South Carolina and, until the last minute, was the only candidate on the party’s U.S. Senate primary ballot. In both races, the Democratic nominees lost in landslides.

This year, however, S.C. Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison says he is encouraged by his party’s lineup and the willingness of Democrats to run against entrenched Republican incumbents in a GOP-controlled state.

Others are less enthusiastic about the Democratic cast.

“Maybe they’re keeping their powder dry, their first string rested for 2018” and the race for the governor, Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said of S.C. Democrats after filing closed for this November’s races. “Despite the organizational advances, their bench is fairly thin.”

‘It’s been a struggle’

Consider Thomas Dixon, the Democrat’s challenger to U.S. Sen. Tim Scott – the Republican congressman appointed by the governor and then re-elected to the Senate when tea party godfather Jim DeMint resigned.

Dixon was the only Democrat to file to oppose Scott. He entered the race little known and remains so, even he acknowledges. The pastor and community organizer says he had hoped for more support from the state Democratic Party, especially in raising money and getting his name out.

“It's been a struggle now for six months,” Dixon said last week. “Fundraising has been minimal.”

The state party is not helping its candidates raise money. Instead, Harrison says his focus is rebuilding the party’s bench – mostly through recruiting, training and offering on-the-ground campaign support to candidates. The party also is hosting a series of town halls for Democratic candidates across the state.

Building the roster will take time, Harrison said.

“After years of not having candidates,” the party’s challenge “is getting people to think that they have a shot.”

No matter ‘how impossible’

Though short on cash compared to their GOP challengers, S.C. Democrats running for Congress are enthusiastic.

Arik Bjorn of Columbia says a look at the 2012 ballot inspired him to run for the 2nd District seat in the U.S. House this year.

“I walked into my poll and it was (Republican incumbent) Joe Wilson versus nobody. That moment had a lasting impact for me,” said the Richland librarian, who won the Democrats’ June primary for the 2nd District seat.

Bjorn said Democrats have to “wake up” and start running for offices, even if it means losing.

“Who cares how impossible the district seems? Will nobody stand for democratic principles?”

The story is much the same in the 4th District.

Chris Fedalei of Greenville thinks he has a shot at beating U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, even though the Spartanburg Republican has $389,000 to spend on his re-election and national clout in the GOP after leading a probe of Hillary Clinton’s role as secretary of state during the Benghazi terrorist attack.

A political newcomer and 2015 USC law school graduate, Fedalei had raised $48,000 through June, the second-highest total among S.C. Democrats challenging Republican congressional incumbents.

Fedalei says he is undeterred by his financial disadvantage.

“We always knew we were never going to out-fundraise Trey Gowdy, who has a list of millionaires” he can call on for support, he said.

Fedalei, 26, said he decided to run for Congress after taking part in a S.C. Democratic Party rebuilding effort – a fellowship to train young Democrats to run for office and run campaigns.

This year, Fedalei says the absence of any other Democrat willing to challenge Republican Gowdy pushed him to run. “I was so sick of waiting for someone else to step up.”

‘Facing difficult odds’

Moving forward, Democrats are hoping to put big losses and some party embarrassments behind them.

The 5th District has been a sore spot for state Democrats since Mulvaney beat John Spratt in 2010, ending the York Democrat’s 28-year congressional career.

Democrats also suffered an embarrassment that year when Alvin Greene, an unemployed U.S. Army veteran from Manning, beat retired judge Vic Rawl for the party’s nomination to run against Republican DeMint. DeMint won re-election by a 61-28 margin.

In 2014, state Democrats dodged another potential humiliation when state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, entered the race at the last minute to challenge Jay Stamper, the only Democrat who had filed to run for the seat held by Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham. Fearing another Greene, the state party endorsed Hutto over Stamper after the Washington transplant’s history as a felon and political prankster surfaced.

The same year, S.C. Democrats were excited when Lancaster-native Rick Wade said he would run for the U.S. Senate seat held by Scott. But the former presidential campaign adviser to Barack Obama and Cabinet director under Jim Hodges, South Carolina’s last Democratic governor, dropped out, saying he did not have enough time to raise enough money to be competitive.

Three little-known Democrats eventually competed for the Democratic nomination. Richland County Councilwoman Joyce Dickerson, a retired insurance auditor and beauty salon owner, won the nomination but never seriously challenged Scott, losing 61-37.

This year, 4th District candidate Fedalei says the state party’s support has been great – helping phone banking and canvassing voters.

But national Democrats also should invest in building the bench in states like South Carolina, where Democrats have not received a lot of outside support, he said.

“If the bench is light already for candidates to recruit down here, the worst thing you can do is abandon the ones who are trying, even when facing difficult odds.”

SC Democrats running for Congress

A Democrat is running for each of South Carolina’s eight seats in Congress that are up for grabs in November. A look at who’s running:

Fran Person

Running for 5th District U.S. House against U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-Indian Land

Age: 33

Hometown: Tega Cay; native of Havertown, Pa.

Family: Wife, two daughters

Education: University of South Carolina, bachelor’s; played football at USC

Job: Former aide to Vice President Joe Biden for eight years; former assistant to USC President Harris Pastides and athletics director Ray Tanner from 2014 to February

Political experience: First run for office

Arik Bjorn

Running for 2nd District U.S. House against U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-Springdale

Age: 43

Hometown: Columbia; Minnesota native

Family: A daughter

Education: Wheaton College, bachelor’s; University of South Carolina, master’s

Job: Librarian, Richland Library

Political experience: First run for office

Chris Fedalei

Running for 4th District U.S. House against U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-Spartanburg

Age: 26

Hometown: Greenville

Family: Not married

Education: USC law school

Job: Recently passed exam to become an attorney; not practicing

Political experience: First run for office

Thomas Dixon

Running for U.S. Senate against U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-North Charleston

Age: 64

Hometown: North Charleston; Chicago native

Family: Married with two children

Education: High school

Military experience: U.S. Navy veteran

Job: Pastor and community organizer

Political experience: First run for office

Other Democratic congressional candidates

Dimitri Cherny: Running for the 1st District seat against Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford

Hosea Cleveland: Running for 3rd District seat against Republican U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn: Running for re-election in the 6th District

Mal Hyman: Running for the 7th District seat against U.S. Rep. Tom Rice

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