Incumbents big winners in S.C. ballot drama
COLUMBIA — In their controversy-filled run-up, Tuesday’s elections were called a “sham,” a product of the “Incumbent Protection Act” and, at the very least, highly confusing.
But no matter how you describe the ballot drama that prefaced the South Carolina primaries, the end result was a great day for most Statehouse incumbents.
After more than 250 candidates were disqualified following an S.C. Supreme Court decision related to improperly filed disclosure paperwork, most of the contests didn’t pack much punch.
Just 11.38 percent of eligible registered voters showed up at the polls, the lowest turnout in at least 15 years, according to the State Election Commission.
In addition to the reduced candidate pool, Tuesday was rainy in much of the state, and the contests were the first to use newly drawn districts.
And the poor turnout was exacerbated by the fact that more than 400,000 voters didn’t have an election to vote in, and there were no statewide races on the ballot, which happens only once every 12 years.
It all added up to losses for only six lawmakers.
“It would have been a mostly good night for incumbents anyway, but it was certainly made a lot easier,” said Winthrop University political scientist and pollster Scott Huffmon.
But among the incumbents who didn’t escape Tuesday was Summerville Republican Sen. Mike Rose.
He lost the District 38 seat by 20 percentage points to political newcomer Sean Bennett.
Bennett’s win took many by surprise, but voters in the district have a history of dumping incumbents, doing so in each of the last three Senate election cycles.
Bennett attributed his win to effective messaging, a strong volunteer force and old-fashioned shoe-leather campaigning.
Rose, who dramatically outspent Bennett, seemed stunned by the results Wednesday.
He said he was surprised by low voter participation — fewer than 7,000 cast ballots in the race — and speculated that he might have done better in a higher-turnout contest.
Almost 13,000 District 38 voters took part in 2008 when Rose narrowly unseated Sen. Randy Scott in the GOP primary.
“My opponent got more voters out to vote than I, for whatever reason, and I wish him the best,” Rose said.
Huffmon said at first blush, Rose’s loss was the most surprising of any incumbent because he had all the name recognition and is a well-respected senator.
Scott Buchanan, executive director of The Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics, said he wasn’t surprised by Bennett’s win.
He said there was anecdotal evidence in the form of widespread campaign advertising, letters to the editor in the local paper and comments from many he talked to that Bennett has a more engaging personality.
“The lower down the ticket, the more likely personality is going to play a factor,” Buchanan said.
“There are times where all the money can’t get it done.”
But in most contests, the results favored sitting legislators.
Some had to fend off competitors, while others saw challengers wiped out by confusion over the paperwork-filing requirements.
No incumbents were decertified by the Supreme Court ruling because state law exempted public officials, who already have the disclosure forms on file.
That led some critics to describe the statute as unfair, effectively the “Incumbent Protection Act.”
Lawmakers then didn’t pass a fix that would have helped many of their disqualified challengers.
Gov. Nikki Haley’s spokesman last week described the primaries as “an absolute sham, and incumbent protectionism at its worst.”
But Huffmon said incumbents more likely just got lucky rather than planning on the paperwork filing requirement knocking out challengers.
“South Carolina is rife with belief in conspiracies, but actual well-planned and executed conspiracies are much, much more rare,” he said.
“It smacks more of serendipity for (incumbents) than grand conspiracy.”
Buchanan said despite all the other factors at play, the main explanation for Tuesday’s dismal turnout and incumbent success was voter apathy.
“Most voters just simply didn’t care that much,” he said.
Reach Stephen Largen at 864-641-8172 and follow him on Twitter @stephenlargen.