South Carolina Democrats’ once bright prospects have faded

South Carolina Democrats’ once bright prospects have faded

By Hastings Wyman –

Things were looking up for South Carolina Democrats. In a 2017 special election in the 5th District, Archie Parnell, a retired Goldman-Sachs executive, ran a surprisingly close race against Republican state Rep. Ralph Norman. Then a 40-year old scandal came to light: Parnell beat his then-wife, dealing a severe blow to his political potential.

This year, in the 1st District, freshman state Rep. Katie Arrington (R), a strong Trump supporter, defeated incumbent Mark Sanford (R) in the primary, setting up a possible Democratic upset by Joe Cunningham in that Charleston-based district. But then Arrington was in a serious automobile accident, taking her off the campaign trail for a while, but bringing her plenty of sympathetic publicity.

In the governor’s race, Democratic state Rep. James Smith won his primary outright over two opponents, while Republican incumbent Henry McMaster was forced into a runoff with Greenville businessman John Warren, giving Smith a head start in both fundraising and campaigning. But without the extra turnout in the 1st and 5th Districts the congressional elections might have brought, as well as some staffing problems, Smith’s campaign has lost some of its luster.

“We can compete in the 1st and the 5th Districts,” says Boyd Brown, the state’s Democratic National Committeeman. “The 1st District is becoming bluer by the day. Young people are moving in. Charleston County is blue now.” As for the 5th, Brown says “Ralph Norman is vulnerable. He’s not a strong candidate, witness his 2017 primary victory” and his narrow (51.1% to 47.9%) victory over Parnell in the special General Election. He also notes that “We just lost a plant in Winnsboro,” Brown’s home town. “It was making television sets,” but costs imposed by Trump’s tariffs on China caused the plant to close down. “This year Trump’s tariffs have made national politics local,” Brown says.

But Brown also says, “I’m a forgiving person, but I would find it difficult to vote for someone guilty of spousal abuse, no matter how long ago it was … Archie Parnell’s personal history has cost us a seat.” Moreover, in mid-July, the Huffington Post reported that six former staffers for Parnell said he was “still plagued by a hair-trigger temper” that made them fear for their safety. Parnell’s campaign dismissed this as a personnel matter.

Parnell does have some campaign funds. As of June 30, he had raised $1,880,000 with $405,000 cash-on-hand. Norman had more, but not that much more: He had raised $2,159,000, with $496,000 on hand. Moreover, Parnell has support from some powerful Democrats, including state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a former state House minority leader.

The 1st District, Democratic nominee Joe Cunningham, “is very likeable. He’s made a lot of friends, he’s incredibly hardworking. He would make a good congressman” says Waring Howe, Charleston lawyer and former South Carolina Democratic National Committeeman. Cunningham is an attorney and an ocean engineer, whose record on environmental and other issues has impressed folks in the district. GOP nominee Kate Arrington, a state representative, “doesn’t have any record, no accomplishments she can point to,” says Howe. Moreover, she defeated incumbent US Rep. Mark Sanford (R) in a divisive primary.

However, says Howe, “At a practical level, when Arrington got in the car wreck, the race became harder for Cunningham. She got a lot of good publicity. She got some sympathy. And it’s a Republican district and it’s hard for Cunningham to go after her,”

But Howe believes that “Cunningham has a shot because of Trump. Arrington has been wrapping herself around Trump more than King Tut’s mummy has bandages. She thinks Trump’s support is an advantage, but it is only in the primary. A lot of Sanford voters, ideologically and politically, are not as far right as Trump.” Sanford has not endorsed Arrington but has said he will not vote for a Democrat. However, he recently called her out over her support for off-shore drilling.

Says Matt Moore, former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party and now with First Tuesday Strategies, “The coast is trending toward the political center. People are moving in from other states. Lots of fiscal conservatives and social liberals. This poses challenges for Arrington.” Moore adds, however, her Trump ties (he endorsed her in the primary) “could be a problem for some, but I think it will pay off.” He adds, “History says the Democrats should perform better this year than in 2016. However, Donald Trump’s Republican Party has defied every prediction.”

Nevertheless, Democrat Boyd Brown says, “Joe Cunningham could be in the first batch of blue winners.”

In the governor’s race, incumbent Henry McMaster (R), 71, has a long career of public service in South Carolina. He was the state’s attorney general for eight years and its lieutenant governor for two years. He also served as chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party for nine years. His career includes effective prosecution of serious crimes as well as a “Public Servant of the Year” award from the Sierra Club.

McMaster’s running mate is Pamela Evette, a businesswoman from Travelers Rest in Greenville County.

For the Democrats, state Rep. James Smith, 50, has represented his Columbia-based district in the General Assembly for 21 years. In the legislature, he has promoted measures to help veterans, public education and ethics reform. He is known to work effectively across party lines. He is a lawyer and businessman, and as a major in the National Guard, served 12 months on a combat tour in Afghanistan.

State Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell (D) is the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. She is from Lancaster County, which may help Smith upstate. “There’s more focus on the upstate by a Democrat than I’ve seen in years,” says Brown.

Tellingly, both major party nominees for governor chose women from the vote-rich upstate as their running mates.

Not surprisingly, Republicans and Democrats have (mostly) dissimilar views on the McMaster-Smith contest.

Chip Felkel (R), a Greenville-based public policy consultant, says “It’s McMaster’s to lose.” He notes that “Smith tried to get the endorsement of minor parties. That looked bush league.” Smith did withdraw from this effort. “If they (Dems) had the money and staff, they might do something,” adds Felkel.

Matt Moore, former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party and now with First Tuesday Strategies, acknowledges that “James Smith is a very good Democratic Party candidate. He fits the profile the national Democrats are looking for; he’s a veteran, plus he’s liked across the aisle.”

However, continues Moore, “The Archie Parnell issue was highly deflating to the South Carolina Democrats. They wanted him to help James Smith in the governor’s race.” He also believes that the divisions in the governor’s race in the Republican Primary “were over blown. I’m not hearing from any grassroots activists who aren’t for McMaster.” He points out that John Warren, the runner-up in the GOP runoff who did not endorse McMaster on election night, “came back and said he always votes Republican.”

Democratic Committeeman Brown is more sanguine about Smith’s chances. “Statewide, there’s a change brewing. James Smith has the perfect background to compete in South Carolina, a military record, all the ingredients.” He adds, however, that “Smith has to get organized and under control, to get the money.”

Former Democratic National Committeeman Howe points out several factors helping Smith. “How close McMaster is to Trump is not helpful. Also, McMaster is a politician with ties to scandals (involving both Republican legislators and political consultants).”

The impact of Trump-imposed tariffs on goods from China could also help Smith. BMW has written Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross that the tariffs could put at risk some 45,000 jobs, 10,000 at its plant in Spartanburg and another 35,000 from its suppliers in the state. Volvo and other manufacturers have also expressed concern about the tariffs.

Says Howe, “This is the first time in a long time that Democrats had something to be optimistic about.”

As for President Trump, he’s the elephant in the room, perhaps a mixed blessing for the GOP. Tariffs aside, “People like the stuff [Trump’s] doing,” says an anonymous GOPer, “but wish he would act like a president, and not a damn fool.”

Stay tuned.