Special elections frequently contain surprises, and the Republican primary for Aiken County Council District 6 on Feb. 5 was no exception. Most observers expected a run-off from this three-way race.
Instead, former councilman Phil Napier won the primary outright with 51 percent of the vote to 41 percent for John McMichael and 7 percent for Lynette Barton. Voter turnout was only 1,330 out of 12,399 registered voters or 11 percent.
Expectations for a run-off were based on the district’s three geographic sections, each with a candidate representing them. Instead, variations in voter turnout and Barton’s inability to gain traction led to Napier’s victory.
The smallest section is the City of Aiken with approximately 20 percent of the vote. Comprising precincts Aiken 1, Six Points 35 and bits and pieces of others, this was McMichael’s electoral base. This section had a 13 percent turnout, of which McMichael won 77 percent to Napier’s 20 percent.
The largest section, “Greater GVW,” has roughly 45 percent of the electorate. This includes Graniteville, Vaucluse and Warrenville, along with Gloverville and Breezy Hill. This was Napier’s stronghold, and the results were the reverse of Aiken’s: 69 percent for Napier and 24 percent for McMichael with a 14 percent turnout.
The last section, with about 35 percent of the electorate, is the rural countryside. This contains all or parts of Eureka, Shaws Fork, Shiloh, Ward, Couchton and Redd’s Branch. Barton hails from this area.
The rural results were anomalous. First, turnout was an abysmally low 5 percent. Second, Barton only received 15 percent of the vote to 48 percent for McMichael and 37 percent for Napier.
This low turnout doomed Barton. She thinks many voters in the rural precincts were simply unaware of the election.
Others, she believes, didn’t know they could cross over to vote in the Republican primary.
McMichael, for his part, speculated that there weren’t any “hot button” issues motivating rural voters.
Ultimately, the election hinged on Napier’s large margin in GVW, with McMichael’s similarly good results in Aiken nullified by its smaller size, and the rural third of the district essentially not participating.
Napier “thanks God and the voters” for his win, but also notes that “I busted my tail.” He began work before last November’s election. He knocked on hundreds of doors, placed 400 yard signs (“99 percent actually in people’s yards”), and personalized every letter in his mailer.
Napier also thinks McMichael’s endorsements from outside the district energized his supporters.
“I definitely think these people should have stayed out,” he said. “These endorsements disgusted a lot of folks. Many feared that rural and unincorporated representation on council would be lost.”
In comparison, McMichael competently ran a textbook campaign. He employed phone banking, a mass mailer, print advertisements, yard signs, and key endorsements to gain name recognition and turn out the vote. Yet it wasn’t enough.
McMichael credits Napier with hitting the ground earlier – McMichael’s effort didn’t begin in earnest until after the New Year – and for successfully pounding the theme that “he (Napier) was from the area and could represent them better.”
On the other hand, McMichael thinks turnout in Aiken was difficult to achieve. “Many voters are sick and tired of politics after the November election,” he said. In addition, many city voters didn’t realize they were eligible to vote in an election for County Council.
There are many lessons from this election. First, the City of Aiken is a narrow reed on which to base a successful candidacy in District 6. Second, endorsements have limited utility in low turnout elections. Third, some city of Aiken voters see no reason to participate in county elections. Fourth, hitting the campaign trail early is crucial, as is the personalized touch in campaigning. Fifth, turnout and getting out the vote is critical.
For now, Barton has no political plans. She’s glad she “stepped up,” but has a wait-and-see attitude toward the future.
McMichael won’t run as a write-in, but he’s keeping his options open. “I’ll continue to look at the numbers closely,” he said.
“We ran a good, positive campaign. We made a good start, and I’ve received much encouragement since the election.”
Meanwhile, Napier is preparing for his return to the Aiken County Council after a 10-year hiatus. “I’ll represent the taxpayers and intend to work with all members of council,” he said last week.
“I want to be a peacemaker, being fair to all with hard feelings toward none.”
Gary Bunker is a former member of the Aiken County Council.