Translating enthusiasm into votes back home
CHARLOTTE — South Carolina's delegates are returning from the Democratic National Convention with enthusiasm and energy but that can't mask a larger truth: Their party remains in a decade-long losing streak at home.
Republicans hold all statewide offices, majorities in both Statehouse chambers and five of the state's six congressional districts.
Even Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges' win in 1996 appears as a mere speed bump in Republican ascendancy in the Palmetto State.
But state Democrats hope they're closing the gap, and they cited several steps they can take to get back in the game.
Time for a change?
Several Democrats say they need to emphasize more that Republicans have been running South Carolina for a decade.
Some say that if the tea party is such a force in South Carolina politics, and if tea parties are frustrated and fed up with government, more of their anger should be directed toward the party that's run their state government.
State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a delegate and a likely gubernatorial candidate again in 2014, has listed all the Republican statewide leaders charged, convicted, fined and booted out of office in recent years.
“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Sheheen said.
Democrats also need to capitalize on voters' frustration about the state's high employment rate and low education levels to emphasize it's time for a change, Charleston County Democratic Chairman Richard Hricik said.
“If these policies worked, how come South Carolina's unemployment isn't better?” he asked. “How come South Carolina's education isn't better?”
A message the GOP won't co-opt
But state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter of Orangeburg said Democrats' future campaigns should not be based solely on Republicans' failings.
“We've got to develop a message that's not an attack,” she said. “We ought to focus on why people should hire us for this job.”
But that can be trickier than it sounds. While the state's two parties differ on details, candidates from both say they want to create jobs, strengthen the economy, and improve education and health care.
Hodges didn't win for any one specific reason, but he certainly benefited from his campaign on a pledge to create a state-run lottery to support education. One commercial famously depicted Georgia voter “Bubba,” who said his state loved S.C. residents crossing the border to buy lottery tickets.
Hodges' opponent, incumbent Gov. David Beasley, was against the lottery for moral reasons, even though polls showed most state voters supported it.
“It's important to be able to have an issue or two that crystallizes what the differences are between the candidates.” Hodges said.
It's not sexy or as exciting as listening to passionate speeches, but party building involves work, such as identifying and courting supporters, fundraising and identifying good candidates.
“It comes down to the simple things of organizing the vote,” Hricik said,
Cobb-Hunter agreed. “It's going to take Democrats who are focused on party building and who have a backbone,” she said. “I want workhorses. We have too many show horses in this party.”
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said the party should remain competitive if it can put forth candidates who can attract support from a broad base. “We've got good solid moderate problem-solving people available,” he said.
Riley said single-member districts make it more challenging for Democrats.
One reason the party has struggled is that since 1992, the state's legislative and congressional districts have been drawn to maximize the number of black-majority seats, which also has maximized the number of safe Republican seats.
S.C. Democratic Chairman Dick Harpootlian is challenging the latest redistricting before the U.S. Supreme Court, and U.S. Rep. James Clyburn has submitted a deposition in support of that challenge.
If districts were redrawn based more on geography than race, they argue, then more races would be competitive — and that would help the Democrats.
“As long as that (race-based redistricting) is allowed, the state and the South can't move forward,” Harpootlian said.
While the party has a solid base of faithful black voters, who make up about a third of the state, it must broaden its appeal, Hodges said. “We have a need to do better with white voters.”
The Republicans' rise in South Carolina has been aided by the popularity of its presidential candidates in the state, not solely because of what the state's Republicans have done.
The outcome of this year's presidential race, coupled with the state's demographic changes as more people move here from other states, could improve the Democrats' competitiveness here over time.
Many say that's already happening along the coast, which has gained the most new residents. “The tide is turning,” Hricik said.
Even if legislative districts continue to be drawn based on race, Riley predicted that will matter less in the future.
“We're in the process of maturing as a people, achieving racial progress, and people are being more color blind in the process of voting for people or making decisions about people,” he said. “The younger generation is more oblivious to race, and I think that will increasingly happen.”
In the end, none of the above is expected to provide a quick rebound for a party that has struggled in South Carolina in recent years.
Kaye Koonce attended this week's convention as a member of the party's platform committee, Asked what state Democrats need to do to regain their competitive edge, she replied, “If I knew that, we'd be doing it.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.