Democrats in South Carolina have more work to do
S.C. Democrats say state Rep. James Smith’s 8-percentage-point loss to Republican Gov. Henry McMaster Tuesday night was not a complete defeat.
While a Democrat still hasn’t been elected S.C. governor in 20 years, the party celebrated its largest number of candidates to run for elected office — 349 — in more than a decade.
Democrats also flipped a few seats in the Legislature, including a long-held GOP seat in the state Senate, now held by former state Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian.
And, in an historic upset in a district Republicans had won for almost 40 years, Democrat Joe Cunningham won the 1st District seat in the U.S. House, where he will join the state’s only other Democratic congressman, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of Columbia.
Now, names of potential 2022 Democratic hopefuls for S.C. governor are rising to the surface.
Those names include state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell of Lancaster, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor Tuesday. Democrats think Norrell can appeal to white, rural South Carolinians, bringing them back into the party.
Also on the list is Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. In June, Benjamin made news when he led a delegation of mayors to the U.S.-Mexico border to protest the Trump administration’s immigration policy.
Other candidates could include:
▪ Quick-witted and vocal Columbia attorney Todd Rutherford, the minority leader in the S.C. House
▪ Communications consultant Mia McLeod of Richland County, one of four women in the state Senate
▪ Former state Rep. Bakari Sellers of Bamberg, who lost his 2014 race for lieutenant governor and is now a CNN contributor.
But if 2018 taught S.C. Democrats anything, they say, it is that an unknown candidate with hyper-local messaging has a shot at winning.
“Joe Cunningham did more for the (S.C.) Democratic Party than he did for himself,” Rutherford said Friday. “He showed that Democrats can win.”
‘It’s a bit too ambitious’
S.C. Democrats say it is too early to anoint any one candidate for governor in four years.
“We have far bigger things we need to worry about, like nominating a presidential candidate, and a congressional and legislative election in two years” said Amanda Loveday, former executive director of the S.C. Democratic Party and Clyburn’s former communications director. “It’s just not time for that conversation.”
But like the firing of a football coach, some Democrats want to know, “Who’s next?”
“I suspect in 10 years we’re going to see a different level of leadership, not only in this state but across the country,” said Aiken City councilwoman Lessie Price, first vice chair of the S.C. Democratic Party
South Carolina could be next in 2022 if it elects Lancaster’s Norrell, seen as one of the S.C. Democratic Party’s rising stars. If elected, she would be the second woman to hold the seat, following former Gov. Nikki Haley, who was born in Bamberg, another rural S.C. county.
Norrell said this week she has not considered running.
Or S.C. Democratic voters might say it is time to nominate an African-American candidate for governor for the first time since 1990.
Sellers says it is.
“Look at Stacey Abrams (in Georgia) and Andrew Gillum (in Florida),” said Sellers, who did not dismiss the idea of some day running for governor. “You can be progressive and shine that progressivism in a black idiom.”
Columbia Mayor Benjamin and Rep. Rutherford say they have not weighed a 2022 bid.
“Honestly, anyone who is looking at a gubernatorial race today is getting way ahead of their skis,” said Benjamin, who won an uncontested third term last year. “It’s too early and too soon. It’s a bit too ambitious. I love serving as mayor of Columbia.”
‘2020 just got a lot easier’
Without a clear candidate, S.C. Democrats say the road to 2022 starts with registering more voters.
Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright says the party must identify the Democrats among the 1.4 million S.C. registered voters who did not cast a ballot Tuesday and raise more money, an area where Democrats typically trail the GOP.
For example, Democrat Smith was outspent 3 to 1 by Republican Gov. McMaster but still managed to almost cut in half the GOP’s margin of victory from 2014.
The road to 2022 also must include getting back to voters’ “kitchen-table issues,” Loveday said, and building the party’s pool of candidates.
Democrats see an opening in candidate recruitment, courtesy of Charleston attorney Cunningham.
“Our candidate recruitment for 2020 just got a lot easier for local races,” said Charleston County Democratic Party chair Brady Quirk-Garvan. “One of the reasons Joe (Cunningham) won is his ability to be hyper-focused on local issues.
“It made a world of difference.”
S.C. Democratic Party chair Trav Robertson is upbeat.
“Elections are right around the corner, and we’re going to start looking at where we can pick up (state) Senate seats” in 2020, he said. “There’s three to four that are vulnerable, and we’re going to fight like hell to win those seats.”