Politics & Government

Could SC Senate seat flip in Columbia-area race with a sharp ideological split?

Benjamin Dunn and Dick Harpootlian
Benjamin Dunn and Dick Harpootlian

The candidates to be the Columbia area’s next state senator are drawing sharp distinctions between each other, in a district that could flip between the parties after decades of Republican control.

Dick Harpootlian, a onetime chairman of the state Democratic Party, is running a campaign in Senate District 20 focused on the perceived culture of corruption in the Legislature and how to steer wayward lawmakers back toward what he sees as the people’s interest.

For him, that includes expanding Medicaid in the state and improving the effectiveness of state services.

But Republican candidate Benjamin Dunn emerged from a four-person GOP primary field by emphasizing conservative issues like taxes and term limits.

The Ballentine attorney and Afghanistan veteran talks more on what people can and should do without government.

At a candidate forum Tuesday hosted by United Way of the Midlands, the issue that drew that contrast most sharply was whether South Carolina should take federal dollars to expand Medicaid.

Harpootlian said the state’s reluctance to expand the medical program in order to get that funding contributed to preventable deaths, including children.

“The problem is this philosophy that I have a philosophical opposition to taking money from the federal government,” he said. “Well, you don’t have to take it, but what about the kids? The money Nikki Haley turned down went to New Jersey, where a Republican governor did take it.”

But Dunn argued that programs that depend on higher taxes will ultimately reduce private initiative and economic activity.

“He has a lot of programs he wants to spend money on, but every dollar you tax means a job that private companies aren’t going to offer,” Dunn said. “We can tax ourselves into oblivion, but that’s not a successful strategy historically.”

Dunn said instead that private organizations, like the United Way or churches, should step in to fill the gaps when necessary.

“We as Christians need to shame ourselves into doing what we need to have been doing all along and helping the less fortunate,” Dunn said.

More than government divides the two candidates. When Dunn suggested more students should be encouraged to go to two-year technical colleges rather than more expensive four-year schools, Harpootlian said Dunn was coming at education from “a white middle-class perspective.”

“I’ve talked to people who have not graduated high school. You can’t get to tech school if you can’t read or write,” Harpootlian said. “We need to invest in early education, kindergarten … Talking about the difference between college and tech is ignoring most of the folks we need to be helping because they never get to that point.”

Dunn pushed back against Harpootlian’s phrase, saying it promoted “tribalism.”

“That’s the problem with folks on the liberal side of the coin, they want to put people in groups. You’re either white, black, or Hispanic. Gay or straight. They want to cubby-hole you,” he said. “We can talk about African-American issues, women’s issues, but we all live in this community together … I’m tired of that, and I think most people are.”

Harpootlian is a longtime fixture in S.C. politics. The sharp-tongued Columbia attorney served as a Midlands prosecutor and on Richland County Council. Dunn’s previous political experience came in 2014, when he ran an unsuccessful primary campaign against U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham from the right.

This year’s race is a special election. District 20’s seat came open earlier this year when Republican Sen. John Courson, who held the seat for more than 30 years, resigned in June after pleading guilty to misuse of office as part of the probe into corruption at the S.C. State House.

That opening may put the seat in play. Harpootlian has raised some $140,000 for his Senate campaign, plus a $100,000 personal loan. Dunn had raised $13,500 on the eve of the August special primary, most of it his own money.

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