South Carolina Democrats enjoy rare rays of sunshine

April 11, 2013

There isn’t a single Democratic constitutional officer in South Carolina. Democrats control just one of nine seats in Congress. President Obama lost the state twice by an average of about 10 points. And in 2010, the party nominated Alvin Greene for the Senate, an inexperienced candidate who faced allegations of obscenity.

Indeed, there’s been little for Democrats to get jazzed about in the Palmetto State during the last decade. But that's changed in the last few weeks.

On Wednesday, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D) announced his intention to run for governor once again, giving his party a capable contender against vulnerable Gov. Nikki Haley (R). Meanwhile, in the state’s 1st congressional district, party strategists believe Elizabeth Colbert Busch has a shot of upsetting former governor Mark Sanford in a May 7 special election.

1st district Democratic nominee Elizabeth Colbert Busch. (Bruce Smith/AP)
1st district Democratic nominee Elizabeth Colbert Busch. (Bruce Smith/AP)

A Democrat hasn't held the 1st district seat in more than 30 years. The state's last Democratic governor was Jim Graves Hodges, who Sanford unseated in 2002.

It’s difficult to overstate how little success South Carolina Democrats have had in recent years. Like most of the Deep South, Republicans have come to dominate where Democrats once held a commanding advantage.

All nine of South Carolina’s constitutional officers are Republican. The GOP gained a House seat in 2010. And that same year, Greene, the Democratic Senate nominee, received national attention – but not in a flattering context.

The Democrat's surprise nomination – he did virtually no campaigning leading up to the primary – was the source of great intrigue, but lent him little momentum. Greene's inexperience showed, and a report that he faced felony obscenity charges made things worse for him.

“Democrats in South Carolina have suffered from a shallow bench for a while now. The Alvin Greene fiasco was another blow to their morale at exactly a time when they didn't need it,” said Winthrop University pollster Scott Huffmon.

Former Democratic National Committee chairman Donald Fowler, a South Carolina native, said mounting losses lowered the party’s morale over the years.

“In the last decade we haven’t won much, and so you lose that frequently and for that a long a period of time, it turns down the enthusiasm,” Fowler said.

Nowadays, things are looking up for the party. Polls show Colbert Busch is running competitively against Sanford, in a district that leans heavily Republican. And Sanford’s 2009 fall from grace – he disappeared as governor for nearly a week then admitted to an extramarital affair – has raised Democratic hopes of winning over some Republican voters.

Sheheen’s decision to run again has also stoked Democratic energy. Sheheen lost to Haley by about five points in a 2010 open race, in an election cycle that was very good for Republicans. And polls show Haley is vulnerable heading into 2014, even as her numbers have ticked up.

"If [Colbert Busch] wins, that will give Democrats in South Carolina much more encouragement and enthusiasm to take on Governor Haley next year,” Fowler said.

Republicans, for their part, have begun to tie Colbert Busch to the national Democratic Party and can be expected to do that same with Sheheen. If it's an effective attack, it could sink Democratic hopes in a state where Obama is decidedly unpopular.

"If folks are concerned about what Obama’s leadership has done to the nation, they should be dismayed at the thought of Sheheen as governor," said Republican Governors Association Executive Director Phil Cox.

Make no mistake: Victories by Colbert Busch and Sheheen wouldn't change overnight the fact that South Carolina is a very conservative state. And if they both come up short, Democrats could feel even more deflated than in past elections.

“Even a win by one of them will re-energize the party base, but if they both go down, there may be a sense that they ‘took their best shot and it still wasn't enough,’” Huffmon said.

But for now at least, there is something for Democrats to be excited about in a state where the party has had little to celebrate.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Chris Cillizza · April 11, 2013