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Surprise GOP candidates will face off in Columbia Senate runoff Tuesday

Benjamin Dunn, left, and John Holler
Benjamin Dunn, left, and John Holler

GOP voters were pretty evenly split on Tuesday when they tried to decide on a candidate for a Columbia-area Senate seat.

When the dust settled in the four-way contest, Republican voters selected Ballentine attorney Benjamin Dunn and Epworth Children’s Home president John Holler for an Aug. 28 runoff. One now will be the party’s nominee in state Senate’s District 20 special election, opposing Democratic nominee Dick Harpootlian.

The result of Tuesday’s primary was a bit of a surprise.

Both men raised less money for their bids than did Chapin attorney Christian Stegmaier or Columbia insurance agent Bill Turbeville, the other candidates in the GOP primary. Even the candidates were a little surprised they made the runoff.

“I was standing in front of Spring Hill High School, that’s the precinct where I finished up, and when 7 o’clock hit, I said a little prayer and thought, ‘We could be in first, we could be in last,’ ” said Dunn, who won 32 percent of the almost 3,900 GOP votes cast.

Holler considered himself a long shot before he won 25 percent on Tuesday, finishing second behind Dunn and little more than 100 votes ahead of the other two candidates.

“I asked somebody a while back: ‘What do you think the chances are for somebody with not much name recognition and not much money to win a primary?’ ” Holler recalled. “They said, ‘None.’ ”

The two men have not clashed on the campaign trail, but they do offer voters contrasting priorities and personalities.

Dunn, who once challenged U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham from the right in the 2014 GOP primary for the U.S. Senate, wants to focus on road repair and utility issues, as well as term limits for legislators.

“Somewhere between eight and 12 years” would be a good limit, he said.

That tenure would keep legislators from accruing too much power, Dunn said, but avoid “so much turnover and such a shallow pool of experience among members of the Legislature that lobbyist types and folks at the state agencies de facto end up with far more power.”

Holler, on the other hand, used his background at the Children’s Home to focus on the challenges facing services for families and children. He said he wants to bring that experience to the state’s embattled Department of Social Services.

“Just in the time I’ve been at Epworth, the next (DSS) director will be the fourth director I’ve gone through,” Holler said. “This time, the governor’s office is asking people on the ground, ‘What is it that is needed?’ They’re asking people who receive the services, ‘What’s needed?’ So maybe the next person will have the information they need.”

Referring to his onetime career as a marriage counselor, Holler said he has experience fixing broken systems, whether in families, larger organizations, like Epworth, or state government.

In drawing contrasts with each other, the men point to their differing backgrounds.

Dunn mentions his credentials as an attorney, but also his experience starting two law firms.

“We’re a business like anybody else,” he said. “We’ve got to keep the lights on and make sure folks get paid. I understand the pressures faced by small business.”

Holler, an ordained United Methodist minister, sees an opportunity to bring a different perspective to the State House.

“You have real estate agents, attorneys, business people, but not someone who is an expert in human relations,” Holler said.

The winner of the Aug. 28 runoff will face Columbia attorney Harpootlian, who won 81 percent of the almost 3,300 Democratic votes cast Tuesday, in November.

Dunn and Holler have different approaches as to how they would handle the sharp-tongued former state Democratic Party chairman during the fall campaign.

Dunn draws a sharp ideological contrast between himself and Harpootlian.

“I’m politically conservative because it just works,” Dunn said.

“In my observation of life, government, my read of history, conservative principles are what build and maintain a vibrant, growing society,” Dunn said. “The ideology he represents is tired, worn and it just doesn’t work.”

Holler has a more mellow approach to Harpootlian, who attended Trenholm Road United Methodist Church while Holler was a pastor there.

“It depends on which Dick comes out,” Holler said. “In the courtroom, Harpootlian is very combative. He tries to win.”

But Holler thinks the way to make lasting change at the State House to be a “nonanxious presence.”

“I’m going to stick to my issues and work as hard as he does,” Holler said.

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