COLUMBIA — When it comes to the speculation bubbling about what impact Jim DeMint's departure will have on electoral politics in South Carolina, Democrats are often forgotten.

Colbert tops wish list

COLUMBIA — It's no joke. In a new poll taken over the weekend, TV satirist Stephen Colbert topped South Carolinians' wish list for a replacement to U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint.In a poll of 520 S.C. voters, 20 percent told Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling that they favor the Charleston-reared Colbert for the seat.Next up was U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., at 15 percent, followed by U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., at 14 percent and former South Carolina first lady Jenny Sanford at 11 percent.Of course, who voters want to fill the seat doesn't really matter. Gov. Nikki Haley will appoint a successor to DeMint, who announced last week that he is resigning to lead a conservative think tank.Haley appears to have already ruled out Colbert, poking the mock conservative's tongue-in-cheek campaign by saying his lack of knowledge of the state drink was a “big mistake.” And on Monday, Haley closed the door on the prospect of appointing a “placeholder” to fill the seat for the next two years and not seek re-election in 2014.The announcement fanned speculation that Haley is leaning toward appointing Scott.Haley said she didn't want the effectiveness of the state's next senator to be undermined by the fact that a placeholder would be leaving office so soon after assuming it.Haley herself didn't fare well in the new poll, drawing 42 percent job approval to 49 percent disapproval.According to PPP, that spread makes Haley one of the most unpopular governors in the country. Of 43 sitting governors the firm has polled on since 2010, Haley ranks 35th.Haley's approval among self-identified S.C. Republicans stands at 70 percent in the poll.Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said Tuesday that the first-term Republican is focused on governing, not politics or polls.PPP conducted its poll from Dec. 7-9. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.

Gossip and all manner of theories here have centered on the ambitions of the state's dominant Republicans, with little attention paid to how the departure affects Democrats.

That's just fine, said Amanda Loveday, executive director of the S.C. Democratic Party.

“I'd rather them talk poorly about each other than focus on us,” she said of Republicans.

But like it or not, the Democrats' job just got more complicated. The party now has to find another viable statewide candidate to run for DeMint's seat in 2014, pulling from a bench of candidates many see as strikingly thin.

The opportunity is bigger, too. Some Democrats now believe they have a chance to claim the seat, even with Gov. Nikki Haley's upcoming appointee to the seat expected to run for re-election.

“2014 will be a do or die election in terms of (the party's) relevance,” said Democratic consultant Tyler Jones. “If we come up with a great slate of candidates like we did in 2010 and we lose, that would be very detrimental to the future of the Democratic Party in South Carolina.”

Even with the 2010 lineup of candidates praised by Jones and other Democrats (they don't mention the debacle candidacy of Alvin Greene, an unemployed Army veteran who became the Democratic challenger to DeMint that year), they came up empty. Zero for nine in statewide constitutional offices, and a beating in all but one congressional race.

All those seats will be up for election again in 2014, in addition to the state's two U.S. Senate seats.

The problems

Why have Democrats faced such struggles in most recent high-profile races? Depends who you ask.

Political scientists such as Scott Huffmon, who runs the Winthrop Poll, point to the party's problems turning potential Democratic-leaning voters into actual voters.

“Whatever ways they have of registering and getting folks to the polls is not working,” he said.

Others highlight the fact that the state has few swing voters, and is reliably about 55 percent to 45 percent Republican in statewide races.

Changing demographics, specifically a growing Hispanic population which has aided Democrats nationally, hasn't appeared to help South Carolina Democrats much. The state's Hispanic population doubled to 5 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to census results. But a steady influx of Republican-favoring retirees into the state could cancel out gains Democrats might eventually make among Hispanic voters.

Republicans like Joel Sawyer, a political consultant with Columbia firm Donehue Direct, say Democrats' problems are manifold. He said Democrats don't represent the values of most state voters and have done little to present credible alternatives to Republicans, instead focusing on attacking them.

Sawyer said viable potential Democratic candidates don't want to run.

“It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy after a while,” he said. “Credible candidates don't think they can win, so you end up with sub-optimal candidates instead. They are in a vicious cycle.”

Jack Bass, a retired professor at the College of Charleston, said Democrats “need to provide a farm club” by doing a better job recruiting and training credible candidates. “The bench is not full of them,” he said.

Still hope

Loveday, the party executive director, and state Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian, who is unlikely to run for re-election next year, strike a more optimistic tone.

They said national groups are interested in pouring money into the 2014 race for DeMint's seat.

“The dynamic is now dramatically changed,” Harpootlian said.

And he said a host of potential strong Democratic candidates have already expressed interest in running for the DeMint seat. Democrats don't figure to throw as much into the race against U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is cash-flush and figures to cruise to re-election if he can make it out of a possible GOP primary contest.

Loveday said the party will have to pick its battles in 2014 and focus on races that are winnable. One such contest, she said, is the governor's race. State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, is widely expected to seek his party's nomination again. In the 2010 race against Haley, Sheheen lost by just four points.

As for the DeMint Senate seat, Democrats mention prospective candidates including state Reps. James Smith, D-Columbia, and Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston.

Jones, the Democratic consultant, said one race can begin to shift Democrats' fortunes.

"All you have to do to build a party is to elect a governor,” he said. “Beat Nikki Haley, and then the rest of our problems will hopefully start to go away.”