AIKEN, S.C. — Just days before the congressional elections, the Aiken County Democrats announced an evening phone bank — a last-ditch effort to generate enthusiasm in a heavily conservative part of South Carolina. But at the appointed hour, the party office was dark, empty. After all, what was the point? The party had disavowed its own candidate for Congress, a Republican who says he won the Democratic primary because “basically nobody was paying attention.”
At the same time a mile down the road in a church basement, the Democratic Women’s Club held its monthly gathering, featuring 30 women, pink cupcakes and much talk about how hard it is to find anyone to run for office. Phil Black, the pseudo-Democrat running against Republican Rep. Joe Wilson, was expressly not welcome here.
Black at that hour was a few miles away, in a clubhouse at the edge of a new suburban development, telling the Aiken County Tea Party that he would accept no campaign donations and that “government, when it takes over, ruins everything.”
Wilson, running for his eighth term, didn’t attend that candidates night program. Which is not unusual for South Carolina’s congressional delegation: All seven House members and both senators are floating toward Nov. 4 free and easy, running unopposed or facing absurdly underfunded, almost completely unknown challengers.
In a year in which American voters express deep frustration with paralysis in Washington, the ballots awaiting South Carolinians are so lopsided — not one competitive congressional race — that even some entrenched incumbents lament the lack of choice and bemoan what the paucity of campaigning says about the nation’s dysfunctional politics and disaffected citizenry.
Although candidates, parties and outside groups are spending nearly $4 billion to capture the two dozen House races and maybe one dozen Senate contests across the nation that are truly competitive, in states such as South Carolina, there are precious few bumper stickers or yard signs to be seen and barely any debates or forums where challengers can face off against incumbents.
“Why would congressmen come around here?” asked Beverly Huff, a Republican who owns the Antique Emporium in downtown Aiken. “They’re shoo-ins. They go to Washington and the money is flowing and pretty soon, they feel entitled and they feel dug-in, and they don’t need us anymore. I want a front-row seat on Judgment Day so I can watch them all get sucked to hell.”
In Newberry, a charming town 40 miles outside of Columbia, Jason Valek, the wrestling coach at Newberry College, shakes his head at the lack of competition. “It’s just the norm now — just presumed that the same good old boys stay in office till you’re off the earth,” he said. “Just like in college wrestling, it’d be nice to get someone to push the front-runner.”
But Rep. Jeff Duncan — a Republican rolling toward his third term representing a mostly rural district between Columbia and Greenville — sees the lack of competition as a sign that, whatever frustrations Americans have with their government, they think their own congressman is doing a swell job.
“Most people are generally satisfied with their representative,” Duncan said at a candidates night at the glorious Victorian opera house in Newberry. “True, you’re not seeing the engagement you might have seen in 2008, but people have learned that hope and change ain’t all it was cracked up to be.” (Actually, after many years in which voters blamed Congress for Washington’s ills but approved of their own House member, the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll on Congress found that most Americans now disapprove of their representative’s work as well.)
What passes for a dramatic moment in Duncan’s reelection campaign occurred only a few minutes before, when a retired schoolteacher named Barbara Jo Mullis nervously approached Duncan and recited the line she’d just practiced with her husband: “It’s nice finally to meet you, Congressman. I’m the one who’s running against you. I’m glad you decided to come.”
Night after night, Mullis, 66, goes to community meetings — except on Wednesdays, when she watches her grandchildren — but she had never before laid eyes on her opponent. Now, they chatted awkwardly for a few seconds about what a wonderful facility the opera house is, and they moved inside, where they would appear onstage together for four minutes, their first and last debate.
Mullis decided to seek the Democratic nomination when she saw that Duncan was going to be unopposed, just like Rep. Mark Sanford is down along the state’s Atlantic coast, even though the Republican won with only 54 percent of the vote in a special election last year. (All but one member of the state’s congressional delegation is a Republican.)
“I just felt there should be a choice,” said Mullis, who has received no help from her state or national party. “I’m not giving up, because I’ve talked to so many people who are completely fed up.” With only $17,000 raised, compared with Duncan’s $419,000, Mullis’s campaign consists of door-knocking and canvassing. No TV, no radio. No staff either; the campaign phone number rings in her bedroom.
“I know where all the farmers markets are,” she said. “I wear my little T-shirt and pass out fliers. Some won’t talk to me because I’m a Democrat, but I tell them I don’t want their guns and I am not going to force them to marry someone of their own gender. A lot of them just want someone to do something.”
But do they really? Some longtime observers of South Carolina politics look at the dearth of campaigning for congressional seats this fall — the only heated statewide race is the battle between Gov. Nikki Haley (R) and challenger Vincent Sheheen (D) — and conclude that politicians are acting rationally, because the hunger for change isn’t there and the reasons not to challenge incumbents are powerful.
“If the voters keep voting the same people back in and the electorate is suffering from terminal ennui, and the candidates have learned to say nothing because the slightest gaffe will end their careers, why would anyone run?” asked Dick Harpootlian, former chairman of the state Democratic Party. “Why would candidates bother going out and campaigning and exposing themselves to getting in trouble when they can use technology to spoon-feed their message to the people they’ve identified as their core voters?”
“Nobody’s out on the hustings,” said David Woodard, a Republican political consultant who teaches at Clemson University. “Debates are unthinkable because you’re giving credibility to the nobody who’s running against you. So there’s not much discourse, not much substance.”
“A lot of forces are stacked against change — incumbency, money, outside groups — and when races are not competitive, more people may decide to stay home,” said Candice Nelson, who runs the Campaign Management Institute at American University. “There needs to be something that jolts the system. But I don’t know what that is.”
Even when the incumbent is almost as new to the scene as the challenger, the system discourages much of a vibrant campaign. Sen. Tim Scott (R) was appointed to his seat less than two years ago to replace Republican Jim DeMint, who quit to head up the Heritage Foundation. Now running in a special election for the full term, Scott’s financial advantage over Democratic challenger Joyce Dickerson is more than 100 to 1; his $5.75 million to her $52,000. (The state’s other Senate race is even more lopsided; Republican Sen. Lindsey O. Graham has raised nearly $10 million to Democrat Brad Hutto’s $250,000.)
Dickerson goes to forums nearly every night, so far traveling to all but two of the state’s 46 counties, but she has never met Scott. “If he walked in front of me right now, I wouldn’t recognize him,” she said, though the two are scheduled to debate Tuesday. (Graham has declined to debate his opponents because he doesn’t want “this thing to turn into a circus,” a reference to independent challenger Thomas Ravenel, a former state treasurer and convicted drug felon who stars on a TV reality show .)
Scott does go out to meet voters, but given his enormous lead, he’s using the campaign to build his name recognition and to test different ways of reaching voters on TV. “We’re spending seven figures on TV because we feel like we have to let people know who we are,” he said.
He scoffed at the notion that a lack of competitive races might diminish popular interest or confidence in politics. “It’s kind of like saying if you’re a Gamecocks fan, is it a bad thing if you win every game,” Scott said. “I actually like us winning most of the races in South Carolina, so I like the way it works.”
Dickerson, meanwhile, has no choice but to press the flesh and hand out her signs, the only tactics she can afford. “I assumed people would come out and endorse me even though I have no money,” she said. “You notice the first three letters in ‘assume,’ huh? But we’re still going on: We touch and we hug and we eat hot dogs and we eat fish and we listen to people. And he’s up there on the television screen.”
The question for some incumbents is what to do with all the money. Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R), whose district hugs the North Carolina border, has raised more than $1 million to run against Democrat Tom Adams, a town councilman who has collected $29,000. “We’re using the money to try out some new messages and methods,” Mulvaney said. “We’re on Pandora and Google ads, and longer ads on the Internet to break out of the 30-second format. It’s about seeing what works,” especially in the tricky business of reaching young voters.
Mulvaney still traverses his district, holding town hall meetings, but he says it’s become exceedingly hard to get anyone to pay attention. “We sent out 4,000 invitations one night and two people showed up — two,” he said. “This is the craziest job I’ve ever had.”
Unlike some of his GOP colleagues, Mulvaney says the open-and-shut nature of elections in his state is bad for democracy. “It would be very difficult for me to screw up this race,” he said. “But it’s extraordinarily unhealthy for the republic to have candidates stay home and make TV ads. But it also doesn’t serve democracy to have people screaming at each other at town halls. The fix is to lower your expectations of government.”
Finding the right fix is such a daunting task that many, regardless of their place along the political spectrum, conclude that for things to get better, they must first get worse.
“These aren’t elections anymore,” said Mike Stake, chairman of the Aiken County Tea Party. “They’re selections — these incumbents have so much money, they don’t need to campaign, to meet the people. They’re handpicked by the ones who come before them. And nothing will change until everybody has their Rosa Parks moment: I’m not going to sit in the back of the bus anymore.”
Black, the longtime Republican running on the Democratic line, has spent all of $4,939 on his campaign (“I did a couple of YouTube videos here at the house,” he said, “and, oh yeah, $28 for fliers”), but he keeps at it “because being a stubborn redneck country boy, I want people who are disgusted with the way things are to have a choice. But a lot of them, they just close their eyes and vote for the incumbent. They’re complacent and they’ll stay that way until we’re in a depression — and we’re close. Only then will people stand up and say, ‘That’s enough.’ ”