COLUMBIA — South Carolina Democrats hope a combination of enthusiasm, a desire to change the direction of the state and more careful vetting of people seeking the party’s nominations will help them make gains next election.
Democrats acknowledge they need some wins. All nine statewide offices are run by Republicans, along with eight of the state’s nine congressmen and healthy majorities in the Legislature.
A Democrat hasn’t won a statewide race since 2006, and the party hasn’t taken a statewide or federal office back from the Republicans since 1998, the last year South Carolina elected a Democratic governor, Jim Hodges.
Democrats hope the 2014 governor’s race is a fulcrum for change – state Sen. Vincent Sheheen is expected to take on Republican Gov. Nikki Haley in a rematch of the 2010 race that Haley won by 4 percentage points. But they also have talked to credible, competent potential challengers for every statewide race and both U.S. Senate races, said state Democratic party Chairman Jamie Harrison.
The message those challengers will give is simple – look at the economy, the education system and the ethics in state politics. If voters aren’t happy, then they need to make a switch, Harrison said.
“Just try us out. Republicans have been at the helm for a long time in this state, and see where they have gotten us,” Harrison said.
Recent election results show it could be an uphill climb. Haley’s 4 percentage point win was the smallest margin of any of the statewide races in 2010. In 2012, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won South Carolina with 55 percent of the vote as South Carolina has become more and more Republican.
Some of the problems with Democrats over the past decade have been self-inflicted. The party’s lone congressional member, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, hasn’t publicly supported the Democrats’ U.S. Senate nominees since 2004.
Plenty of people remember Alvin Greene and his puzzling win in the party’s 2010 U.S. Senate primary. But the last time U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham was up for re-election in 2008, the Democratic nomination was won by Bob Conley, an anti-abortion, anti-immigration candidate who supported Ron Paul for president and served on a Republican committee a few months before getting the nomination. In 2006, the Democrats had a secretary of state candidate who asked to be allowed to sing a song at the end of a debate.
Harrison said the party plans to put together a committee to run background checks and interview its candidates. While Democrats can’t keep anyone who pays the filing fee from running in their primaries, the party can tell its voters that it has no confidence in a particular candidate.
“We want qualified Democrats. We want to nominate candidates Democrats can vote for,” Harrison said.
Republicans have their own strategy for 2014, putting extra emphasis on local races in an effort to flip county councils and county offices like sheriffs from Democratic to Republican control.
The GOP also expects to emphasize the dropping unemployment rate under Haley and problems the Democrats have had running the government on the federal level, linking state Democrats to President Barack Obama.
Much of the momentum of the 2014 race will come from the top of the ticket. Sheheen is the only Democrat to announce a run for governor, and Harrison said the party isn’t preventing anyone from challenging him for the nomination. But there is little doubt the party wants this rematch with Haley since the governor is the most frequent target for their criticism.
“We will certainly be excited if he is on the ballot. We think he will bring energy to all the other races down the ticket,” state Democratic Party Executive Director Amanda Loveday said.
But the Democrats plans don’t all involve being negative. The party is trying to bring in enthusiasm with younger leadership. They recently put together a voter-registration drive called “Believe in South Carolina.”
“We think we will have excellent opportunities to contrast to the failure of leadership we have had,” Harrison said. “If people give us a chance, we can change this state for the better.”