By Hastings Wyman –
In North Carolina, despite Mitt Romney’s narrow win in 2012, Democratic US Sen. Kay Hagan is confounding the early prognosticators and continues to lead in virtually every independent poll. In Georgia, where Romney had a stronger win two years ago (53% to 45%), Democrats are running neck-and-neck with Republicans in both the governor’s race and the US Senate race.
In South Carolina, however, which is nestled between the two, the GOP is poised to return Republicans to the governor’s office and two US Senate seats with apparent ease. True, Romney’s lead was stronger here – 55% to 44%. But the GOP’s continued strength is in the face of several important negatives. Gov. Nikki Haley (R) has often been the subject of controversy, including with GOP legislators, and faces state Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D), whom she narrowly defeated (51% to 47%) in 2010. US Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) has angered his party’s rightwing and had to conduct a primary campaign against six challengers (he won with 56%). Moreover, both Haley and Graham face once-Republican independent candidates who have the potential of drawing votes away from the two Republican lawmakers. Only US Sen. Tim Scott (R), a conservative African-American, running for the last four years of an unexpired term, has had smooth sailing.
But despite these negatives, Palmetto State voters appear ready to reelect Haley and Graham, as well as Scott, and with comfortable margins.
In the governor’s race, Haley continues to get support from the conservative base for opposition to spending and higher taxes. She benefits more broadly from the state’s job growth. South Carolina’s jobless rate declined over the past year from 8.0% to 5.3%. The 2.7 point decrease was the highest in the South and is indicative of a significant economic turnaround in South Carolina on Haley’s watch.
Haley has been consistently leading in voter surveys. A Winthrop University poll released October 1 showed Haley with a 44% to 33% lead over Sheheen; Ervin had 4%, with 12% undecided. In the four-poll Real Clear Politics (RCP) average, Haley had 51%, Sheheen 36%. The results for independent Tom Ervin, a former judge, were not included.
Charles Waring, editor/publisher of the Charleston Mercury, while acknowledging that Haley is not “beloved,” says that she “is not making mistakes that make people upset.”
In addition, Sheheen “is running as a national Democrat,” says a consultant (R) not connected to any campaign, and “he’s not closing the deal.” He has criticized Haley for failing to expand Medicaid in the state under Obamacare, but her position is not an unpopular stance in this conservative state. Sheheen “can’t shake that,” says Waring.
Moreover, Sheheen has not been able to focus effectively on the problems at the Department of Social Services, although he has referenced it in one TV spot. A Legislative Audit Council report found that showed caseworkers were heavily overloaded was placing children “at greater risk.” Haley had chosen the DSS’s director, Lillian Koller, who has since resigned. Sheheen has also hit Haley for vetoing a teacher pay raise, a veto overridden by the Republican legislature.
On the plus side for Sheheen, former Democratic National Committeeman and Charleston attorney Waring Howe says the Democrats’ internal polls are “very, very close,” and he notes that in 2010, polls a month out showed Haley with a much larger lead than she got on Election Day. “If Sheheen wins Charleston big, he can win,” says Howe. Moreover, Bakari Sellers, son of civil rights activist Cleveland Sellers, is the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, which should help bring out African-American voters who will also vote for Sheheen.
Indeed, at this point, Sheheen is concentrating on turning out the mostly African-American Democratic base. He is now calling for removal of the Confederate battle flag from the state house grounds. “Thirty days out and you’re still trying to rally your base? I don’t see it appealing to moderates and independents,” says the consultant. Note also that when Vice President Joe Biden visited Columbia last week, the rally was held at historically black Allen University.
As for Ervin taking Republican or independent votes away from Haley, it isn’t happening. “If Democrats were counting on Ervin to do their dirty work, it didn’t work,” says the consultant (R). Ervin spent about $2 million around Labor Day, says this source, but it didn’t help him. As noted above, he received 4% in the recent Winthrop survey.
In the US Senate race, Graham’s meticulously planned, well-organized and well-planned campaign, which began to take shape in 2013 before the filing deadline, is paying off. Moreover, he gets lots of free media in television interviews, particularly on foreign affairs, affirming his image in the state as a major player in Washington, which helps him with the state’s business and civic establishment.
In Winthrop University’s poll released October 1, Graham led with 46% to Hutto’s 28%, with 8% for Ravenel. And in the RCP average of four polls taken from July through October 1, Graham had 46%, Hutto 30%.
In the money chase, through the first half of this year, Graham easily came in first, raising $6,521,000. Democrat Hutto raised $177,000. Independent Ravenel brought in $235,000 – all of it lent the campaign by Ravenel. And Libertarian Kocher raised $4,000.
“There’s no house-a-fire for Graham,” says Waring, noting that in no poll does his approval rating exceed the mid-40s. As for the prospect of Ravenel hurting the GOP nominee, his campaign “is imploding. He’s not spending the money that people thought he would.” Waring attributes Graham’s very likely reelection to Obama’s unpopularity (38% in the Winthrop Poll) and to the weakness of his opponents. (A GOP insider comments that Ravenel’s “dislike for Graham is visceral.” Democrat Howe says Ravenel has “real personal animosity toward Graham.”)
Howe says, “I don’t think the Thomas Ravenel campaign is getting any traction,” citing Ravenel’s personal life, which includes a stint in prison on drug-related charges. Ravenel also appears on Bravo’s Southern Charm, in which “there’s a lot of drinking and risqué behavior. As a result, people don’t take him seriously,” Howe adds. Moreover, Ravenel, who “made a pile of money in real estate development,” is not spending as much money on his campaign as folks had originally thought he would. As for Hutto, Howe says he “would have been competitive, but he needed $2 million, not $200,000.”
In the race for the remaining four years in the state’s other US Senate seat, incumbent Scott is a shoo-in. In the recent Winthrop Poll, Scott had 52% to Dickerson’s 32%, with 2% for Jill Bossi’s 2%, running as the nominee of the fiscally conservative, socially liberal American Party. In fundraising, Scott has done almost as well as Graham, raising $5,258,000. Democrat Dickerson raised $37,000, and Bossi $11,000.