Or, the Purpling of the Palmetto State.
One of the under-reported results of the 2008 elections is the surprising improvements Democrats made in South Carolina, with little more than Obama's ground game. Given these results, the Democratic Party has a chance to make further inroads into SC. Given what's at stake in the 2010 elections, they would be foolish to not do so.
This diary is long, so here's a summary:
- Obama lost SC by only 9 points, an 8-point improvement over Kerry's performance, with a lot of room for further gains.
- Two Democratic House candidates ran surprisingly close races against Republican incumbents and are in great position to challenge again in 2010.
- One of the most conservative members of the Senate is up for re-election in 2010. With the right candidate and campaign, this seat is a potential pick-up opportunity.
- SC holds its statewide elections in 2010-- including a Governor's race in which the incumbent is term-limited from running again.
- There is a very good chance that SC will receive a 7th House seat after the 2010 Census, increasing the importance of redistricting.
In the extended entry: how and why to turn South Carolina blue.
First, let's look at the sixteen state and district presidential races that finished within 10 percent in 2008:
Amongst the usual swing-state suspects are several states that the Obama campaign pulled out of early and/or got into late, all of which ended up in McCain's column. And then there's South Carolina-- despite spending little if anything on advertising in the state (besides what was targeted to GA and NC), Obama improved eight points over Kerry's 17-point loss in 2004. Part of the improvement can be attributed to voter registration and GOTV efforts (10% increase in registration and 5% increase in turnout since 2004), but even with tremendous absentee and Election Day turnout, I doubt those efforts were worth eight points by themselves.
Significant chunks of the improvement came from Obama's national advertising, campaign efforts that spilled over from GA and NC, and the campaign infrastructure remaining from the early Democratic primary. With more than a half-assed effort by the Obama campaign and the Democratic party, combined with the existing apparatus and efforts, SC could swing by double-digits by the next Presidential election. Consider, Obama overcame a twelve-point Kerry deficit in 2004 to win NC by several tenths of a percent; according to Nate Silver, no two states are more similar than North and South Carolina [edit: link added]; therefore, what worked in North Carolina should by and large appeal to South Carolina as well. (Note also the supposed "battleground" states are not on that list. The SC presidential race was closer than the ones in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, and West Virginia.)
Okay, so the terrain looks at least receptive (if not favorable) to turn SC blue in 2012. What about in the meantime, like 2010?
Well, in mid-term elections, South Carolina elects its statewide officials, including Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General, and Superintendent of Education. (N.B. All but one of them, Superintendent Jim Rex, are Republicans.) Also, in addition to the six House races, our junior senator, Jim DeMint, if up for re-election, as well as all 124 members of the state House of Representatives.
First, the federal races:
SC-Sen: Freshman Senator Jim DeMint is one of the most (if not THE most) conservative members of the Senate. He is anti-choice, has expressed anti-gay sentiments, and is a staunch fiscal conservative (he voted against the Bailout, in part because "our own Government appears to be leading our country into the pit of socialism."). He's not a complete nut-- he's called on the GOP leadership to boot Ted Stevens from the Senate-- but too often he's at odds with, um, reality.
So with the right candidate and campaign, DeMint would be vulnerable. The right campaign would likely align itself with President Obama and hammer DeMint's record (he'll likely oppose many of Obama's programs on fiscal grounds). The right candidate? No idea. With any luck, someone better than Bob Conley. (Aside: Conley is an object lesson in paying insufficient attention to the primary process. I didn't vote in the Senate primary, thinking, like many other Democrats, what would it matter who's offered up to Lindsay? Yeah. But more about the shortcomings of my straight-party Democratic vote later.)
SC-01: Henry Brown won an unexpectedly close race to Linda Ketner. I'm not sure which is more surprising: that the first openly gay major-party congressional candidate in SC lost to a four-term incumbent by a scant four points-- or that her sexual orientation was not an issue in the campaign? Whether Ketner runs again here or elsewhere, Brown is vulnerable. SC-01 is a prime pickup opportunity for the Democrats.
SC-02: Joe Wilson was the other incumbent Republican to only win by single-digits over his Democratic opponent. Wilson defeated Rob Miller, a veteran of the Iraq War, by only eight points. Another pickup opportunity for the Democrats.
SC-03: Gresham Barrett won by 30. His name has been bounced around for a run for Governor, but that's about the only way to get him out of this seat-- it's probably his for as long as he wants it.
SC-04: Bob Inglis didn't fare as well as Barrett-- he only won by 23. Unless he runs for another office-- and so far I haven't heard anything to indicate he will-- this seat is likely his for the keeping.
SC-05: Every cycle, we see John Spratt show up on a couple of "targeted Democratic seats" lists. And then he goes out and wins by 25.
SC-06: Jim Clyburn is the third-ranking Democrat in the House and is arguably the most powerful South Carolina politician at the moment. Oh, and he won re-election by 35. I've seen his name mentioned for a possible place in the Obama Administration (and for selfish reasons I hope he turns them down if offered), but if he gave up the seat, it would likely still stay in Democratic hands.
SC-07: Wait, what? Hold on a second, SC doesn't have a 7th district. Maybe in a few years....
SC-Gov: This will likely be the biggest race in the state in 2010. The incumbent, Republican Mark Sanford, is restricted by term limits from running again for re-election. At least two potential Republican nominees, current Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer and current AG Henry McMaster, won statewide office just four years ago. That gives Democrats a bit more than a year to recruit some candidates who could successfully run against someone with the name recognition of Bauer and McMaster. Possible Democratic candidates include current Superintendent Jim Rex, former Superintendent and Senate candidate Inez Tenenbaum, and former SC Democratic Party Chairman Joe Erwin.
Besides the obvious benefits, the party who wins the Governor's chair in 2010 will enjoy a couple other electoral advantages. First, the Governor appoints the five members of the State Election Commission, whose mission is "to ensure every eligible citizen has the opportunity to register to vote, participate in fair and impartial elections, and have the assurance that their votes will count." Sounds important. Second, the Governor holds veto power over redistricting.
SC-Leg: The State Legislature also has a significant role in redistricting, among other things, but, unsurprisingly, both houses of the General Assembly are in Republican control. Sadly, we're stuck with an all-male Senate for the next four years, but the enitre membership of the House is up every two years.
But, check the state election results and notice that more than half of all state House and Senate candidates (for both parties) ran unopposed or against only third-party opposition. Many voters ran into the same problem I did, where voting straight-party Democrat (and refusing to vote for Republicans) meant I did not cast a vote in my state legislators' races (as well as several other races). Now, I do realize that in many of these districts, Democrats would perform little better than not running at all, but we can't take over the Legislature at all if we don't field any candidates. At any rate, Democrats would have to flip 10 out of the 71 Republican-held House seats to claim a two-seat majority. (There's also the problem of fighting the massive political contributions of Howard Rich to a bunch of Republican legislative candidates under the premise of supporting school vouchers, and, um, right-wing causes, but that's another diary.)
And, there's the rest of the state Constitutional Officers: Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Treasurer, Attorney General, Comptroller General, State Superintendent of Education, Commissioner of Agriculture, and Adjutant General. Some of these offices will be open, depending on who runs for Governor and Senator.
So that's why, but what about how? An analysis of voting results in each of SC's 46 counties this year and four years ago shows how far Democrats have come and how far they still need to go.
For the 2008 election, SC had 2,580,175 registered voters, of whom just under 75% turned out to vote. The eight most populous (based on registered voters) counties in the state account for a majority (52%) of the total population of registered voters in the state, while the next eight most populous counties account for just under 24% of statewide registered voters. So, a third of the counties hold 3/4 of the electorate (no surprise, really). Let's break down the stats for those 16 counties, using the official results:
|County||#Reg Voters||%State RV||Turnout||Kerry Margin||Obama Margin||Improvement|
Looking past some of the abysmal margins Obama scored (his 46-point loss in Pickens county was his worst showing in the state), note that Obama outperformed Kerry in every county on that list. In fact, Obama did worse than Kerry in only two small counties, Abbeville and Saluda, which combined have less than 25,000 registered voters.
Obama did best in Richland (Columbia) and the Black Belt region, so further gains there would be incremental. But, everywhere else, Democrats have room to make further gains in the next couple election cycles. Heck, Charleston and Colleton flipped to blue, and in other nearby coastal counties-- Beaufort (Hilton Head), Dorchester, and Berkeley-- Obama improved by more than 9 points over Kerry's margins. Meanwhile, even in the conservative Upstate (Greenville, Spartanburg, Anderson, Pickens, and Oconee), home of Bob Jones University, Obama made significant though more modest gains. York County (Rock Hill) is basically a suburb of Charlotte, while Aiken County includes North Augusta, across the Savannah River from Augusta, GA. And as for Horry County... I would think the residents of the Grand Strand would be receptive to a message of environmental responsibility, rather than risk losing their tourists (I hope).
Now, project these gains two years from now, adding in the huge efforts it would take to sustain these improvements, and you can see that making SC blue is entirely possible. If we do this right, in four years, SC could have a Democratic Governor, a Democratic Senator, a purple-to-blue General Assembly, and a 5-2 (or even 6-1!) Democratic House delegation. Don't laugh-- we convinced several redneck friends and acquaintances in candy-apple red counties to vote Democratic this year. Just think what could happen with a concerted large-scale effort.
So don't write off the Palmetto State (wrongheaded religious leaders notwithstanding). The terrain is as favorable for Democrats as it has been years, with the possiblity of huge returns on investment.