Politics & Government

Powerful SC lawmaker, eyed for US attorney post, faces challenge for House seat

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter McCoy has drawn his first Democratic challenger in one of South Carolina’s most competitive State House districts.

But the Charleston Republican might not be around to defend his seat, as it is an open secret around the S.C. State House that McCoy is the front-runner to replace Sherri Lydon as South Carolina’s next U.S. attorney.

Democrat Eileen Dougherty, a 42-year-old James Island resident, announced Friday she will seek her party’s nomination to run for the coastal district — which includes James and Kiawah islands. The district has trended blue in recent years.

And a Republican replacement for McCoy on the 2020 ballot could be waiting in the wings, should McCoy be named South Carolina’s top federal prosecutor before the election.

McCoy’s law partner, James Island Town Councilman Joshua Stokes, began raising money for a possible House District 115 run in fall 2018, the first time McCoy’s name was being tossed around for the U.S. attorney job.

Stokes, a vocal supporter of McCoy’s, has kept that campaign account open for the 2020 cycle, ethics filings show. It holds nearly $15,000.

Stokes declined to say whether he would run for the seat if McCoy accepted the U.S. attorney job but acknowledged he is keeping the option open. “I’m not going to put anything out of the question,” he said.

The feeling among State House insiders is that McCoy’s district will turn blue at some point in the near future, even though the 41-year-old McCoy has retained centrist support with his moderate stances on guns and medical marijuana.

A sign of the district’s shifting politics, McCoy defeated Democrat Carroll Temple by 2.9 percentage points in the 2018 election just six years after beating Temple by 36 points in 2012.

Dougherty, who owns a commercial fishing business with her husband, hopes to win over voters by focusing on solutions to coastal flooding and infrastructure, health care and education.

“There are a lot of blue trends there,” said Dougherty, an executive committeewoman at the Charleston County Democratic Party. “There is a lot of opportunity, and I think I am the right candidate.”

Efforts to reach McCoy for comment Friday were unsuccessful.

Charleston County GOP Chairman John Kuhn, whose law office is on James Island in McCoy’s district, said he will make it his personal mission to keep the seat red.

“I’m a big believer in walking the district and getting your vote out,” Kuhn said. “We are going to do that specifically for Peter McCoy’s seat. … I’m going to take this race personally.”

Charleston Democrats have an “extremely good chance” of taking the seat after McCoy voted this year for a proposal to ban abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy, county party chairwoman Colleen Condon said Friday.

“It’s extremely close, and Peter has previously tried to position himself as a moderate, but he got all wrapped up in support of that fetal heartbeat bill,” Condon said. “I don’t believe you can call yourself a moderate when you vote for such extremist positions. I think he’s really lost the middle ground.”

McCoy’s possible departure would shake up the leadership of the House Judiciary Committee, a powerful panel that considers and vets proposals on criminal justice, abortions, guns and a host of other polarizing topics. The committee would elect its next chairman if McCoy leaves the House.

House 115 is one of only a few competitive districts in South Carolina, where most districts have been so gerrymandered, incumbents who win their primaries typically cruise to re-election in November.

The only S.C. House race that was more competitive than McCoy’s in 2018 was Democrat J.A. Moore’s 2.1-percentage point defeat of incumbent Republican Rep. Samuel Rivers.

Moore, a chef, now represents parts of Berkeley and Charleston counties.

Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.
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