Originally created 11/04/04

Election night puts S.C. Democrats in corner



COLUMBIA, S.C. - Democrats now find themselves shoved into a smaller corner of South Carolina politics.

A 10-point loss in the U.S. Senate race Tuesday shows Democrats have a tough path ahead of them in raising money and winning elections in 2006 and keeping the two statewide offices they have.

Republicans won top-of-the ballot races handily in South Carolina, easily turning out voters for President Bush and sending Jim DeMint to Washington instead of Democrat Inez Tenenbaum in their bid to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings.

Democrats picked up a state House seat and appeared to have picked up a Senate seat, but the party needs more, state Democratic Party Chairman Joe Erwin said.

"The big prizes are just what they are: big prizes. We need to win them," Erwin said. "You don't rebuild something that took 30 years to swing to this point in a year and half."

For their part, Republicans already are turning their attention to grabbing the remaining two statewide offices and also plan to shoot lower on the political tree.

"We're going to start focusing at the state party level on the county councils and city councils," state GOP Chairman Katon Dawson said. In the 1970s and 1980s, those political nurseries nurtured Republican candidates before they began winning higher offices. Until this year, "we haven't had the resources" to emphasize them, Dawson said.

Down-ticket is about the only place the GOP has to turn to after Tuesday's results.

In the 2006 statewide elections, Tenenbaum likely will find herself more of a Republican target. Meanwhile, Democrat Grady Patterson, 80, might not seek another term as state treasurer. With Hollings' retirement, those are the only statewide offices Democrats hold.

Erwin says both would fare well in re-election bids.

Republicans also could turn more attention to the U.S. House seat Democrat John Spratt holds. Spratt won Tuesday with 63 percent of the vote to his GOP challenger's 37 percent. In 2002, Spratt faced no GOP election opponent.

But Spratt and his Democratic colleague, Jim Clyburn, likely are safe in their districts as long as they want to keep their seats, College of Charleston political science professor Bill Moore said. Years of redistricting have made U.S. House and Statehouse seats safe for political parties to keep. Incumbents' greatest challenges come in party primaries, not general elections, he said.

One thing's clear, the Democratic Party needs to put its political train back on track to win big.

"I don't think it can," Jim Guth, a Furman University political science professor.

"I think the Democrats are in the position that distinct minority parties always are in. They have to depend on the mistakes of the other side" - policy disasters and scandals - to win elections, Guth said. There's got to be "something that's going to give them an opportunity."

For instance, the indictment of Republican Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Sharpe may provide that type of opportunity for Democrats to pick up a statewide office, Guth said. Erwin sees that race as an opportunity.

Democrats also are going to find it harder to raise money to support candidates, Guth said. "They just don't have the financial base," he said. That's likely to make the party more dependent on wealthier candidates who can afford to pay their own way, he said.

Erwin says Democrats now are launching a detailed analysis of what went wrong and right in Tuesday's election. He's wanting to explore "psychographics" to tap into the emotions behind voters' choices.

And, at some point, the party has to reconcile the divide between the South's conservative Democrats and a more liberal national agenda, Erwin said.