Democrats hoped for gains in SC in 2020 but lost more ground
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina Democrats quietly but confidently talked about how Election Day 2020 would be their best showing in the state in decades. They had money and enthusiastic, energetic candidates to expand small gains they made two years before.
Instead, by the time the votes were counted, Republicans had gained a U.S. House seat and flipped at least two state House seats and three state Senate seats, including defeating a 20-year veteran who wrote the bill removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse lawn.
Republicans first took over South Carolina in presidential elections in the 1960s. They took over the Statehouse about two decades ago and the tide keeps oozing in. With 30 of the state Senate’s 46 seats, the Republicans will have their biggest majority in the chamber in at least 140 years.
“It’s steadily working its way down the ballot,” South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick said of his party’s reach. “Every now and then you have an election that just rushes that momentum forward. This is one of those elections.”
Many Democratic Party leaders didn’t want to discuss the results Wednesday, saying votes were still being counted. But the concession posts on Twitter and Facebook from Democratic candidates reflected a harsh reality.
Democratic state Sen. Dick Harpootlian barely survived his reelection challenge. He said the Republican ads in the U.S. Senate race showing national Democrats scared white voters who might be dissatisfied by longtime incumbents and think about splitting their ticket.
“We should have seen it coming better, but I’m not sure what we would have done about it,” Harpootlian said.
The last Democrat to win the governor’s office in South Carolina said the party had good candidates but has to figure out a way to eliminate the constant 10 percentage point advantage Republicans have because fewer and fewer voters split tickets.
“Success starts with trying to redefine what a Democrat is,” said former Gov. Jim Hodges, who served from 1999 to 2003.
Democrats need to appeal to younger voters and suburban women and be independent voices who go beyond just what the party thinks, Hodges said.
In Charleston County, that kind of coalition was one of the few bright spots for Democrats as they defeated a longtime Republican sheriff and took control of the County Council.
But overall, there is little sign that the Republican domination of South Carolina will end soon. In 1992, Democrats controlled 30 seats in the state Senate. They have not gained seats in any four-year cycle since. Republicans are expected to have 30 of the Senate’s 46 seats when the Legislature returns in January.
In the House, Democrats had 73 seats in 1992. There have been a few two-year cycles where they managed to gain a few seats, but they will likely start the 2021 session with 43 seats.
Most of the seats flipped Tuesday were Democrats who spent years running in districts that elect Republicans to offices like president and U.S. Senate. State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Democrat from Camden, saw a 20-year legislative career that include removing the Confederate flag and expanding pre-kindergarten end. Democratic Sens. Glenn Reese and Floyd Nicholson, who sought to head to the middle in conservative districts also lost.
With another round of redistricting, Republicans have another chance to lump Democrats into their own districts and have fewer senators seeking the middle.
Parts of Sheheen’s district in Kershaw and Lancaster counties overlap the districts of Reps. Mandy Powers Norrell and Laurie Funderburk, the two House Democratic incumbents who lost.
Republicans have used their domination of state politics over the past 20 years to get to where they can hold on to what they have and still pick off seats when the opportunity comes, McKissick said.
“When you have your fundamentals together — are you raising the money, do you have the right message, and do you have the organizational manpower? We have those three boxes checked and we have no problem,” McKissick said.
The local losses were extra pain on a night when U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham couldn’t hang on to the Charleston to Hilton Head Island seat he flipped to Democrats in 2018 and U.S. Senate candidate Jamie Harrison and U.S. House candidate Adair Ford Boroughs lost big despite massive fundraising hauls.
McKissick said Democrats can keep trying.
“If they want to come invest more money in South Carolina and try the barbecue and leave, that’s fine,” he said.
Meg Kinnard contributed to this report.
Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.
Find AP’s full election coverage at APNews.com/Election2020.