AIKEN — This year’s elections give Democrats in South Carolina a rare opportunity to flip the state’s leadership away from the Republican Party. But they will have to overcome decades of Republicans gathering power to do it.
Because of the resignation of U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint in 2012, South Carolina voters are choosing both their U.S. senators and the governor. And unlike recent elections, Democrats have respectable, party-backed candidates running in the races.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham is challenged by state Sen. Brad Hutto as he seeks a third term, while GOP Sen. Tim Scott faces Richland County Councilwoman Joyce Dickerson in the race to fill out the final two years of DeMint’s term.
History tends to favor Republicans. A Democrat hasn’t beaten a GOP incumbent in South Carolina since 1998, and a sitting U.S. senator hasn’t lost a race in the state in nearly 50 years.
But both Hutto and Dickerson say special circumstances around this year’s elections give them a chance.
In Hutto’s case, his campaign is reminding people that 1998 is the year Democrat Jim Hodges beat incumbent Republican Gov. David Beasley, who wasn’t the most popular officeholder in his own party. Also, the 2014 ballot is crowded, including two challengers running to the right of Graham – former state treasurer, reality TV star and convicted felon Thomas Ravenel and Libertarian Victor Kocher. Recent polls also have shown Graham with a higher disapproval rating than any other Republican politician in the state.
Hutto’s campaign figures if he can do a few percentage points better than the 44 percent of the vote President Obama got in South Carolina in 2012, he can beat Graham.
Hutto is embracing Democratic ideas such as raising the minimum wage and improving funding for public schools, while calling himself a pragmatist who can get things done with Republicans. He points out the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce gave him a 100 percent rating for his votes in 2013, and he has the support of the AFL-CIO union.
The chief point Hutto wants to hammer home is that Graham cares more about international affairs, like the attack on the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead.
“He’s talking about Benghazi! Benghazi!” Hutto said at a recent Democratic rally in Aiken. “Look, I want to talk about Barnwell, Bamberg, Beaufort and Bennettsville. He wants to talk about Syria. How about Sally and St. George and Summerville?”
Graham’s campaign referred questions to state Republican Party Chairman Matt Moore, who said Graham can both deal with foreign policy and South Carolina issues.
“No one cares more about South Carolina than Lindsey Graham. He is here constantly, at every party event, helping us,” Moore said.
And Graham did win a Republican primary against six challengers earlier this year with 56 percent of the vote. He also has a distinct money advantage. Graham’s campaign spent $8.4 million in the 18 months leading up to the June primary and still had $2.7 million in the bank when it was over.
Hutto had only $51,000 in the bank at the end of the second quarter, but that was just a few weeks after the primary. He said he should have enough money to run a competitive campaign with statewide advertising as the race heats up in September.
Dickerson is the other Democrat running for U.S. Senate in a race that will be historic no matter how it finishes because South Carolina will elect its first black candidate in a statewide race since Reconstruction.
Dickerson is in even more of a bind with money.
Scott had $3.6 million on hand when the general election campaign started, while Dickerson had less than $3,000.
So while Scott has run television ads in heavy rotation with spots focusing on his ability to connect with “everyday people,” Dickerson has yet to introduce herself on the state’s airwaves. She said she is working on one ad, while also making sure road signs go up around the state.
Scott’s campaign said he has worked hard to introduce himself to everyone in South Carolina, holding events in all 46 of the state’s counties. He wants to make sure everyone in the state has a chance to succeed, campaign spokeswoman Katherine Mize said.
“People consistently say they are looking for greater opportunity, and Sen. Scott’s goal is to help them get there,” Mize said.