S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley and her allies helped push one longtime S.C. Senate leader, Wes Hayes of Rock Hill, out of office in Tuesday’s Republican primaries.
But two GOP Senate leaders who Haley also targeted – Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and Sen. Luke Rankin, R- Horry – won their primary challenges despite the governor’s endorsement of their opponents.
A pro-Haley political group spent more than $500,000 in an attempt to defeat the senators and reshape the Legislature’s upper chamber.
Leatherman beat back two challengers – including former Florence GOP chairman Richard Skipper, who Haley endorsed – to avoid a runoff in his bid for a 10th four-year Senate term.
The most powerful legislator in the state, Leatherman said Haley and her allies “misread” how Florence voters would see their opposition.
Out campaigning, Leatherman said voters repeatedly told him, “‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. What makes the governor think she can come in here and tell us who our senator's going to be?'"
Senate Ethics Committee chairman Rankin also defeated a Haley-backed challenger, Myrtle Beach financial adviser Scott Pyle, positioning himself for a seventh term in the state Senate.
No Democrats or third-party challengers are seeking the seats in November, making Leatherman and Rankin the presumed winners.
The outcome of one race that Haley’s targeted still is undecided.
State Rep. Stephen Goldfinch, R-Georgetown, narrowly finished first in a four-way primary for the open Senate seat that Republican Sen. Ray Cleary will vacate when he retires this year.
Goldfinch and the runner up – Reese Boyd, an attorney from Murrells Inlet, who Haley endorsed – will compete in a runoff in two weeks.
‘A tough year for incumbents’
The big upset of the night was the loss by Hayes – a 31-year lawmaker – to Wes Climer, a Rock Hill financial adviser and former York County GOP chairman who was backed by Haley.
"It's a tough year for incumbents," Hayes said, moments before he planned to call Climer to congratulate him. "We've run a good race. It was a very close race, and I'm proud of the service I've rendered."
Seen as an ally to the governor on ethics and education reform efforts, Hayes said he was disappointed in Haley’s opposition.
"I really don't understand it. It is what it is. She has her reasons. I have always thought of myself as an ally for most of her legislative projects, but apparently I wasn't good enough."
SC State Senate District 12
SC State Senate District 15
SC State Senate District 31
SC State Senate District 34
This year, Haley pledged to campaign around the state against seated lawmakers who she said have failed to help her enact her policy priorities. Leatherman and Rankin both have clashed with Haley, who has accused the lawmakers of blocking her on ethics and transportation reforms.
On Tuesday, she put her political clout – boosted after her response to the Charleston church shooting last summer – to the test.
‘Why not try to take them out’
Haley’s picks had a lot of help.
A Great Day SC, a political group run by Haley’s political adviser Tim Pearson, spent more than $500,000 on television ads opposing the seated senators and Goldfinch, and backing their opponents.
But political observers said that while money could help a challenger have a fighting chance against an incumbent, a legislator’s relationship with constituents plays a much greater role in a race’s outcome.
Former S.C. GOP chairman Chad Connelly said Great Day’s money could have been a game-changer for the right challenger with the right message.
“The money is a big deal,” he said. “I don't think a challenger would have a chance without the money.”
Climer’s success was rooted in his message to reject political insiders, which was “very effective,” Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said.
Going after Senate leaders – who Haley will have to work with to get her agenda passed in the last two years of her final term – was low risk, Huffmon said.
The senators, who Haley publicly has scolded, have not been “in much of a friendly mood anyway,” he said.
“If they’re not going to come around to her side ... why not try to take them out?”
Key S.C. Senate races
GOP primaries where Gov. Haley targeted an incumbent or challenger; 100 percent of precincts reporting
Wes Climer: 4,989
Wes Hayes (i): 4,638
Hugh Leatherman (i): 5,941
Richard Skipper: 4,454
Dean Fowler: 558
Luke Rankin (i): 5,013
Scott Pyle: 3,953
Stephen Goldfinch: 3,232
Reese Boyd: 3,094
Joe Ford: 852
Dick Withington: 399
SOURCE: Associated Press
Bright forced into a runoff
State Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, is heading for a runoff in two weeks after three challengers prevented him from winning more than half the vote in Tuesday’s Republican primary.
Bright finished first in the four-way race in his bid for a third term representing Senate District 12, which covers Spartanburg and parts of eastern Greenville County.
Moore attorney Scott Talley finished in second place, ahead of Greer financial adviser David McGraw and Duncan Mayor Lisa Scott.
Bright and Talley will compete in a June 28 runoff to become the presumed winner of the seat. No Democratic or third-party candidate is seeking the seat in November.
Bright’s challengers had assistance in their effort to topple the conservative firebrand. The S.C. Chamber of Commerce and the Conservation Voters of South Carolina actively campaigned against Bright, saying he was bad for business and the environment.
32 of 32 precincts
Lee Bright (i): 3,681
Scott Talley: 2,594
David McGraw: 2,241
Lisa Scott: 1,250