Politics & Government

SC Democrats left soul-searching after ‘perfect candidate’ crushed

Democrats in South Carolina have more work to do

Democratic candidate for South Carolina Governor, James Smith, conceded the election to Henry McMaster during a rally in Columbia.
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Democratic candidate for South Carolina Governor, James Smith, conceded the election to Henry McMaster during a rally in Columbia.

S.C. Democrats had what they wanted in a candidate for governor and, they thought, their best chance in 20 years to take the office.

An Afghanistan combat veteran, 22-year state Rep. James Smith, 51, ran for governor pledging to work across the political aisle and “leave no one behind,” a nod to his military service and his campaign’s promise that every voter mattered, no matter their zip code.

Smith picked a running mate — state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, 45 — from Lancaster, with a proven record of appealing to white, rural voters who voted for President Donald Trump in 2016.

“You just don’t find many people like that who are strong enough to pull people together rather than pull them apart,” said former S.C. Gov. Dick Riley, one of two Democratic S.C. governors — the other Jim Hodges — who endorsed Smith’s candidacy for governor.

But Smith’s military record and two decades of legislative experience were not enough Tuesday to land him the Governor’s Mansion.

Smith proved unable to compete with Republican Gov. Henry McMaster in fundraising — outraised $7.3 million to $2.9 million, as of late October — and was little known outside Columbia. A month before Tuesday’s election, the Democrat was running TV ads introducing himself to voters.

Smith lost resoundingly Tuesday to McMaster, a candidate who S.C. voters had twice rejected — in his bids for the U.S. Senate in 1988 and for governor in 2010 — and who only became governor when then-Gov. Nikki Haley resigned in 2017 to join Trump’s administration.

Tuesday night’s election results were a sobering reminder to Democrats, who had hoped to unseat the 71-year-old McMaster, that they have not won a governor’s race in 20 years in deep-red South Carolina.

“It was never, never about us and our future,” Smith said Tuesday night, standing beside combat veterans and the interpreter who served with him in Afghanistan a decade ago. “It was always about the people of our state and their future because that is who we serve. We know the difference between leaders who are there for us and leaders who are looking out for their own political futures, and we deserve better than that in South Carolina.”

If S.C. Democrats want to compete statewide with their GOP counterparts, they need to run stronger campaigns that attract national resources, strategists say.

“I wish we would’ve gotten more national attention on him (Smith) and his campaign,” said Jaime Harrison, associate chair of the Democratic National Committee and former S.C. party chair. “He is the type of governor South Carolina desperately needs. He’s somebody who can work across the aisle, someone we can all respect. He’s not overly partisan. He’s not a negative guy.

“He’s one of those people we can all be proud of, regardless of where we stand on the political spectrum.”

‘Sad, but true’

Smith was a “perfect candidate” for Democrats, said Gibbs Knotts, a College of Charleston political scientist.

He ran on his exemplary military record and offered support for the Second Amendment while also calling for gun-control measures, hitting “themes Dick Riley and Bill Clinton have done,” Knotts said.

Early in the campaign, Smith benefited from the support of former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of Columbia — the state’s senior member of Congress and third-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House.

He also had the help of more than a dozen 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls, who traveled the state to meet voters and campaign for S.C. Democrats.

Smith coined himself the next “education governor” and pledged to expand the federal-state Medicaid insurance program to cover the state’s poorest residents.

“A white guy with a family in a conservative state, in uniform, who supports the gay community, he breaks all the stereotypes,” Smith supporter Cathy Ayre, 54, said at Smith’s Tuesday election night party.

But the help from Democratic bigwigs and Smith’s attempts to keep the campaign centered on S.C. policy — not national politics — were not enough to overcome “the economy and the hurricane,” said Chip Felkel, a Greenville-based Republican political consultant. “The hurricane gave McMaster 24-7 news time.”

In September, McMaster and Smith suspended their campaigns as Hurricane Florence pounded the northeastern parts of the state. Florence gave McMaster free air time and pulled Smith behind the scenes, as he was activated for S.C. National Guard duties.

The relationship between McMaster and Trump also posed problems for Smith, who hesitated to make his campaign about the polarizing president in a state where Trump remains popular.

“The problem is most of the national issues were going against Democrats,” said Dave Woodard, former Clemson University professor and GOP strategist. “They have to have a cutting issue against a Republicans to make people change their mind. The national atmosphere is just miserable for Democrats in South Carolina.”

As long as South Carolinians’ pocketbooks aren’t hurting, “they’re not paying attention anyway,” Felkel said. “Sad, but true.”

‘We just have to do some soul-searching’

“Fundamentally, the S.C. Democratic Party has to shift, and shift from just being a political organization to being more community based, meaning going into communities and helping them address the challenges they are faced with,” said former party chair Harrison. “Not doing that two months before the election but doing it now.”

That starts, Harrison said, by looking at the electorate and refocusing on voter registration.

African-American voters, for example, carry significant weight in the Democratic Party, making up more than 60 percent of its voters. But the party needs more to register to vote and then needs those same voters to cast a ballot.

Since the 2010 governor’s race — between Haley and state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, who lost by 4.5 percentage points — the number of registered black voters steadily has increased in midterm elections, from less than 740,000 before 2010 to 832,699 this year. But that increase has not been enough to win.

“As a party ... we have to do a better job of making adjustments as it relates to outreach efforts to the most loyal voting bloc in this party,” said S.C. Democratic political strategist Antjuan Seawright. “We can no longer govern ourselves by business as usual. It has to be a year-round, 365-day approach to court African-American voters and give them a reason to come out and vote.”

That takes resources and aggressively starting outreach efforts early, Harrison added, not just good intentions.

Rebuilding the party also means taking no time off, state Democrats say.

“We’re in the process of rebuilding a party,” said S.C. Democratic Party chair Trav Robertson, “and that starts at the grassroots level. The key is creating a message that resonates across all demographics.”

S.C. Democrats have a lot of work to do, added former state Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, now a regular CNN political contributor who stumped for Smith.

“We just have to do some soul searching.”

State Rep. James Smith, Democratic nominee for S.C. governor, and Smith's lieutenant governor pick, state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell of Lancaster, are touring the state before next week's election.

Lucas Daprile and Tom Barton contributed to this report. Maayan Schechter: 803-771-8657, @MaayanSchechter

Democratic doldrums

S.C. Democrats have not won the Governor’s Mansion since 1988. A look at how their candidates have fared:

1998: Jim Hodges, won by 8 percentage points over Republican David Beasley

2002: Hodges, lost by 5.7 percentage points to Republican Mark Sanford

2006: Tommy Moore, lost by 10.3 percentage points to Sanford

2010: Vincent Sheheen, lost by 4.5 percentage points to Republican Nikki Haley

2014: Sheheen, lost by 14.5 percentage points to Haley

2018: James Smith, down by 8.7 percentage points to Republican Henry McMaster, with 92 percent of counties reporting

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