I GOT A COUPLE of notes last week that convinced me it wasn’t too early to write my most important — and, unfortunately, least successful — election-year column. Because, well, dum spiro spero.
“I hope many Richland County residents will read your editorial and remember it come November,” one woman wrote in response to a column about Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson, “if Mr. Johnson is able to ride out law enforcement investigations until that time. Perhaps you can remind us in late October.”
Another expressed anger over last week’s turn-about in the House, which initially passed and then killed a bill that would have lifted a utility-written cap that’s about to make it prohibitively expensive for homeowners to install new solar panels. She concluded: “I hope the elected perpetrators will feel it in November.”
Odds are they won’t.
All 124 S.C. House seats are up for election this year. But in 67 districts, there will be only one name on the ballot in November. In another nine districts, the contests will be between a major-party candidate and a third-party candidate, which essentially means they’re already decided.
Seventeen contests will be decided in the June 12 Republican primary, five in the June 12 Democratic primary. And 45 were decided when filing closed on March 30 and only one person had signed up to run.
Only a third of the most vocal opponents of the solar-energy bill will have opposition in November: Reps. Bill Sandifer and Gary Simrill. Rep. David Hiott has only primary opposition, and Reps. Mike Pitts and Paul Forrester are unopposed in both June and November. Rep. Dan Hamilton is one of 17 Republicans running in the 4th Congressional District.
As for the solicitor, well, November will definitely be too late to do anything about his spending on lavish parties and travel to such exotic locales as Las Vegas and London and Qatar and the Galopagos Islands. Mr. Johnson’s only opposition, from Byron Gipson, will come in the June 12 Democratic primary. For a while there, it wasn’t clear that he’d have any opposition.
As those House numbers demonstrate, one of the fundamental truths about S.C. elections is that incumbents often get re-elected year after year without opposition.
Another — and the point of this column — is that often the only chance you have to vote an incumbent out of office is in the primary.
A third fundamental truth — which is not demonstrated in those numbers but is also a point of this column — is that incumbents almost never lose in the general election.
At the state level, that’s simply because South Carolina is such a one-party state. In legislative and county council races, it’s because election districts are segregated by race.
The original reason for this was to give black voters a better chance of electing “candidates of their choice,” as the federal courts put it in requiring race-based gerrymandering. But black voters overwhelmingly favor Democrats, and at least in South Carolina, white voters clearly favor Republican — not by quite as wide a margin, but decidedly so. Over time, Republicans realized that packing black voters into one district simultaneously bleached several surrounding districts, creating some safe Democratic districts and even more safe Republican districts.
We could talk all day about what an awful effect this has had on our politics: allowing candidates for legislative and county council seats to appeal just to their political base without having to worry about becoming too extreme to win the general election, and teaching voters to expect and demand that. And in another column, closer to June 12, we’ll talk about how those of us who are not extremists — that is, the majority of us — can begin to reverse this effect … by voting in the primaries.
But for today, let’s just focus on what it means for people who want to unseat or re-elect a particular incumbent: You have to vote in a primary.
Contrary to what party leaders want you to think, you don’t have to be a Republican to vote in the Republican primary or a Democrat to vote in the Democratic primary. In fact, a big reason our politics are such a mess is that only the most partisan of partisans vote in primaries, sticking the rest of us with their extreme choices.
If you want to get rid of Mr. Johnson — or ensure that he gets re-elected — it’s June 12 or never.
If you want to get rid of the anti-solar House members, assuming they have any opposition at all, your best bet is June 12. Ditto if you want to get rid of pro-solar House members.
(In Richland and Lexington counties, the fate of GOP Reps. Nathan Ballentine and Micah Caskey and Democratic Rep. Leon Howard and, for all practical purposes, Democratic Rep. Joe McEachern, will be decided on June 12.)
If you want a say in who our governor will be, you really need to vote on June 12. Ditto our attorney general.
Of course, you can only participate in one party primary, which can make for touch choices: You can’t vote against Mr. Johnson and Attorney General Alan Wilson and Gov. Henry McMaster — or for all three, or any combination that involves both the Democratic solicitor’s race and the Republican races for governor and attorney general.
But don’t let the difficulty of that choice keep you from voting. Better to affect only one or two races you care about than none of them.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.