Politics & Government

Democrats running for SC governor? It’s anyone’s guess


As more than a half-dozen Republicans toss their names into the speculation about who will run for S.C. governor in 2018, the lineup of potential Democratic candidates has been slow to take shape.

State Rep. James Smith, D-Richland – a combat veteran of Afghanistan who weighed a run in 2010 – is the most hyped potential candidate to be the next Democratic nominee for governor.

But, this week, the Columbia attorney said of his 2018 plans, “It’s not something that I think about.”

Democrats are slow to jump in the race for a number of reasons, they and others say.

Winning statewide has proven tough – almost impossible – for Democrats. Also, some potential candidates say they are waiting until after the November presidential election to make a decision.

If Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton can compete against Republican Donald Trump in GOP-dominated South Carolina, it could mean S.C. voters are ready for Democratic leadership, said state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, adding he seriously is considering a run for governor at the request of several confidants.

“If Trump wins, you'll have so much turmoil, so much despair, people will be willing to look at different alternatives,” said former state Rep. Bakari Sellers, who also is considering a run for governor.

Others say what happens in November will have little bearing on a Democrat’s chances of winning the governor’s office.

Despite having to raise at least $6 million while facing six in 10 odds of losing, a S.C. Democrat could see running for governor as preparation to run for another post, said Democratic pollster Carey Crantford of Columbia.

"To be seen as a force statewide” could help a candidate run for the Democratic-majority 6th District congressional seat – if and when long-tenured U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of Columbia leaves office.

“Essentially, that's what the congressional district has become: the statewide Democratic office," said Crantford.

Weighing competitiveness

Kimpson said he is weighing his family’s needs and whether he can raise the $5 million he says he would need to compete for the state’s highest office.

Having won a special election to the S.C. Senate in 2013, Kimpson has been a vocal advocate of gun reform. He adds he is “not afraid” to talk about issues — including raising the minimum wage — that will energize the Democratic base.

Sellers is keeping the option of running open.

“It’s not something I'm saying ‘yes’ to, but not something I'm saying ‘no’ to,” said the Columbia attorney, who was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 2014, a race he lost 59-41.

“I hope that I can still bring some positive things to the state of South Carolina in terms of a leadership position,” added Sellers, a CNN commentator and son of a prominent civil-rights figure.

S.C. Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison said Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, Florence Mayor Stephen Wukela and Johnston Mayor Terrence Culbreath also are among the Democrats to watch in 2018 – for the governor’s office or in other races.

Wukela said Tuesday he has not given the governor’s race much thought.

Asked why a Charleston newspaper had cited him as a potential contender for the Democratic nomination for governor, state Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, said a State reporter was first to mention it to him, but he too did not rule anything out.

In a blog post, Democratic consultant Tyler Jones said state Sen. Brad Hutto, an Orangeburg attorney who lost to Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in 2014, and former S.C. Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum, who lost a race for U.S. Senate against Republican Jim DeMint, also would be strong candidates if they decided to run.

Tenenbaum said it was nice to be mentioned. But, she added, “I'm not running for governor.”

Long on the bench

Smith said he gave a run for governor serious consideration in 2010, after returning from Afghanistan in 2008. But he decided not to run.

“It was just too early and too soon to make the decision (in 2010), having been gone so much, and to ask that much of my family and myself,” Smith said.

Instead, Smith’s close friend and legislative ally, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, won the Democratic nomination in 2010 but lost the general election to Nikki Haley, then a little known state representative from Lexington. In 2014, Haley beat Sheheen again — by a wider margin.

Political observers have said Smith’s military service could appeal to moderate Republicans in a pro-military state.

Smith says he has been working hard at his law practice and on legislative matters. He also has been helping other Democrats. He is treasurer of Fran Person’s effort to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney in the 5th District congressional race.

“It won't be long before South Carolina is electing Democrats all across, statewide on a regular basis,” Smith said. “The question is: When does that happen? Is it 2018 or is it four years from there?”

Asked whether he will help provide an answer to that question, Smith was noncommittal.

“There will be time to really consider the governor’s race after this election is over.”