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Will S.C. Dems Squander Political Opportunities In 2018?

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November 2, 2017
By Andy Brack | Contributing Writer

With Statehouse Republicans reeling from an ongoing corruption scandal and moderate GOP voters questioning their support of a president who can’t keep away from confrontation, South Carolina Democrats have enormous opportunities in 2018.

The big question, though, is whether they will squander their chances. Based on past performance, there’s a good case to be made that they will fumble again.

First, the biggest hurdle state Democrats have is structural: There are so many gerrymandered districts across the state that Republicans automatically are favored in a majority of legislative districts. In 2014, a Statehouse Report study showed more than 90 percent of seats favored incumbents from both parties. Because redistricting won’t be taken up until 2021, it is virtually impossible for state Democrats to find enough truly competitive districts in 2018 to even have a chance at regaining control of the S.C. House.

Second is the mother’s milk of politics: money.  A minority party with little real power or impact in the state outside the floor of the state Senate, Democrats in South Carolina are challenged to raise the large sums of money that it takes to buy all of the slick advertising and marketing it takes to break into the consciousness of voters hammered by media. It’s likely Democrats will focus efforts on one or two big statewide races to try to regain some semblance of control in state politics, but the party of Jefferson and Jackson still are in the thrall of a tough political environment in South Carolina.

Finally, there’s the whole problem of bluster. State Democrats have been saying for years what they would do, but they keep getting roiled by Republicans, who hold all statewide elected offices and dominate the political agenda. Democrats have had some bright spots, such as when state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, figured out a clever way to fund more early childhood education efforts in poor areas of the state. Or when state Senate Democrats held the line this year to ensure that enough S.C. Republicans, who maneuvered to avoid increasing the state gas tax as roads crumbled, joined them to finally approved a gas tax hike. Unfortunately for state Democrats in recent years, there’s been way more promise than performance.

But South Carolina Democrats also have some particularly interesting advantages as we approach the 2018 election. These should position them better at the ballot box.

First is President Donald Trump. While he’s got a strong base in South Carolina, more and more people seem to grumble about the division at the national level. It’s trickling down to states. People – particularly the third of eligible voters who sat home in the last election – might just decide to get active and do something. If state Democrats can motivate the disenchanted, not just their base, they’ll be drawing on a much larger pool of potential supporters than the right wing of the state GOP. In the end, numbers may help Democrats for a change – but they’ve got to capitalize on frustration by pounding messages to capitalize on GOP divisiveness.

Second is the ongoing corruption probe at the Statehouse, currently owned fully by Republicans in the Palmetto State. All seven of those indicted in an investigation that’s been going on for three years have been members of the GOP. The scandal highlights the control that the Republican party has of state government. It puts their 20-year record of slack – some would say comparatively incompetent – governing on public display.

It’s not hard to imagine Democratic candidates shouting at the tops of their lungs: “Why trust South Carolina Republicans to keep governing when they’ve proved they can’t govern? They let our roads crumble because they were slow on the gas tax. They continually underfunded education. They screwed up the state pension plan. They exposed the private information of millions of business and individuals to hackers. They keep pleading guilty.”

Populist Democrats could have a field day on the election trail. But if state Democrats default into their normal position – being middle-of-the-road candidates who take little risks – they will miss the best chance they’ve had in two decades to start turning around their political fortunes.

Andy Brack is editor and publisher of Statehouse Report. Have a comment? Send to: feedback@statehousereport.com

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