Politics & Government

Consultants aren't writing off Eckstrom

Kelly Payne, left, and Richard Eckstrom
Kelly Payne, left, and Richard Eckstrom

State Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom is more likely to face primary and general election opposition, a longtime adviser said, after published personal e-mails detailed a relationship between Eckstrom and superintendent of education candidate Kelly Payne.

Republican and Democratic consultants said the relationship was likely not a political death sentence for the two-term comptroller general.

But political observers around the capitol said Eckstrom is likely the most vulnerable member of the five-member State Budget and Control Board, an influential panel that approves bonds, land transactions and other state business.

Eckstrom, a Republican, is not as strong a fundraiser as other statewide candidates on the board, which include the governor and the state treasurer. The winner in the race to replace term-limited Gov. Mark Sanford will probably spend more than $5 million.

Treasurer Converse Chellis -elected by lawmakers to replace former Republican treasurer Thomas Ravenel after his guilty plea on cocaine possession - has been expecting a challenge and raising money for a contest for two years.

Rod Shealy, a consultant who has advised Eckstrom in the past, says: "Compared to other perceived slip-ups by other people, this is very survivable."

In a statement Wednesday, Eckstrom said that he had been separated from his wife for two years and that the relationship with Payne did not impact his ability to complete his comptroller general duties.

Eckstrom is in his third term as comptroller general, the state's chief accountant, having previously served a term as treasurer. Eckstrom won re-election by 70,000 votes over Democrat Drew Theodore in 2006.

No other candidates have announced for the race, which is not usual in slower-developing down-ticket races.

Shealy said the relationship with Payne means that Eckstrom is likely to pick up a Democratic challenger. But the Eckstrom name - several family members have won election - is a strong asset in GOP primaries.

"It opens the door (to a primary challenge)," Shealy said, but it's certainly not inevitable.

It still may come down to money.

According to most recent state campaign reports, Eckstrom has $22,000 on hand.

"It leaves him extremely vulnerable with a very small war chest," said former state GOP chairman Katon Dawson.

A challenger who can raise money in this economy, Dawson said, can quickly cut an incumbent's advantage.

Former S.C. Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian said Eckstrom should be politically wounded by the e-mail disclosures, but likely would not be.

In the past few years, Harpootlian said, S.C. voters have elected an agriculture commissioner who was later convicted of cockfighting, a treasurer who was later convicted of cocaine possession and Gov. Mark Sanford, who admitted an extramarital affair in June and whom the Legislature considered impeaching.

"In a normal state with a normal system, it would cause him problems," Harpootlian said. "It will probably generate primary and general election opponents."

No new candidates had emerged by Thursday afternoon, and one name floated, Curtis Loftis, said he would continue his bid for treasurer.

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