Next year, South Carolina voters will decide more statewide races than ever before — and maybe ever again.
Because of a scheduling fluke stemming from U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint’s recent resignation, both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats and all nine constitutional officers will be on next fall’s ballots, along with congressional and Statehouse contests. Voters also will decide a referendum that would change the lieutenant governor’s job from an elected post to an appointed one.
While the voting is more than a year away — and the fields won’t take shape officially until March — the state’s political observers already know five of the biggest questions voters will decide:
1) Will Gov. Nikki Haley get four more years?
Haley will kick off her re-election campaign with a large rally Monday afternoon in Greenville, and it looks like her biggest obstacle will be state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Democrat from Camden who ran a close race against Haley three years ago (losing 51 percent to 47 percent).
College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts said Haley has a lot going for her, including being an incumbent and a Republican in a Republican state.
“I like her chances, despite the fact that she only has a 43 percent approval rating,” Knotts said, but a lot can happen in a year.
Citadel political science professor Scott Buchanan noted Haley’s 2010 race was closer than one might expect, “and I think the rematch between the two of them is definitely going to be the headliner of all the races.”
2) Will U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham get a primary scare?
Three Republicans — state Sen. Lee Bright of Roebuck, Anderson businessman Richard Cash and pioneering Citadel grad Nancy Mace of Charleston already have announced they’re after his seat.
And Graham’s June primary battle is expected to be more hard fought than the November election against a Democrat.
“It’s more of a reflection on the polarization in Washington right now,” Knotts said. “It used to be we really admired politicians when they reached across the aisle. Now it’s something that can get you in increasing trouble with your base today.”
If Graham cannot get more than 50 percent of the vote in the GOP primary, Knotts said, he could be in trouble in the runoff, if all his opponents unite behind a single candidate.
3) Will anyone run against U.S. Sen. Tim Scott?
South Carolina made history this year when Scott was sworn in as the state’s first African-American senator — and the first black senator from the South since 1881.
Despite his lack of experience (he had served as the 1st Congressional District representative from 2011-13) and his untested ability to win a statewide race, there have been no Republican or Democratic opponents who have stepped forward to date.
“I think it is a big story, certainly: Will Tim Scott be as popular statewide as he is in the (Charleston-based) 1st District?” Knotts asked. “I suspect he probably will be. We’re seeing initial evidence of that by the fact that no one is lining up on the Republican side to challenge him.”
Buchanan added, “You may have a Democrat file and run, but quite frankly, I think they would be a sacrificial lamb.”
4) Can South Carolina Democrats find something to cheer about?
The story of South Carolina politics over the past generation has been its gradual shift from being a virtual one-party, Democrat-controlled state to being a virtual one-party, Republican-controlled state. Democrats hold only one of seven congressional seats and no statewide office.
The Democrats’ best shot may come in the S.C. superintendent of education race, a position that Democrats had dominated until the 2010 election, when Republican Mick Zais defeated Democrat Frank Holleman by a 51 percent to 43 percent margin. Aside from the governor’s race, that was the second-strongest showing by a Democrat, in terms of the closeness of the outcome.
Knotts said he doesn’t expect a Democratic upset in a congressional or Senate race, but the party could see Sheheen or possibly a Democrat win the S.C. superintendent of education race.
Buchanan said Democrats might be able to pick up a few seats in the state House of Representatives, but historical trends — namely, that the president’s party fares poorly in his second mid-term election — could work against that. “If that trickles down, Democrats could lose some seats.”
5) Will the election move the needle on ethics reform?
South Carolina lawmakers failed to pass comprehensive ethics reform this year, and they will revive their debate next year.
Still, the 2014 elections — both statewide and state House of Representatives contests — will offer a chance for voters to voice their concern on the issue.
“Is the state going to be serious about creating an entity outside the Legislature to police ethics?” Gibbs asked. “I’m a big proponent of trust in government, and if people don’t have some confidence about who they send to Columbia, then the whole system breaks down.”
But ethics reform died this year in the state Senate, and senators aren’t up for re-election until 2016. Also, Buchanan said he is unsure how much attention the average Joe pays to the issue “unless there’s someone with an egregious violation.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.