Labor Day marks the beginning of the 64-day home stretch for South Carolina's political races, as defining themes take shape and voters get to find out whether candidates will sink or swim.
The Nov. 4 election features a bevy of statewide races, none expected to be closer than Gov. Nikki Haley's re-election bid.
Still, while Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott are heavy favorites, Republicans won't take any chances with the balance of the U.S. Senate at stake.
Palmetto State voters also face an option against longtime Democratic incumbent Rep. Jim Clyburn, who has one of the safest Democratic districts in the country. Clyburn is expected to rally Democrats by coming to the defense of President Barack Obama on national issues.
Other races may be getting fewer of the headlines, but candidates vying for superintendent of education, lieutenant governor and secretary of state also hope to make waves and attract their own followers before voters go to the polls.
A look at this year's races shows differing personalities, philosophies and vision for where the state stands and where it should go next.
Ultimately, it's voters who show up at the polls who determine the outcome. Until then, the nitty gritty of the final campaign push will blur or clarify what's at stake and ultimately determine whether voters are content with their leaders or want a change.
Gov. Haley defends record
Haley is viewed as a mostly popular incumbent who has led the state through an upswing in the economy and garnered an aggressive financial advantage against four challengers. Her detractors hope to continue to try to paint a different picture of her leadership, as the independent candidate in the race is spending millions to get his name and ideas more well-known.
There are signs the race could be close, including a recent Palmetto Politics poll that put the incumbent four points ahead of the Democrat in the race.
Haley's campaign views the home stretch as an opportunity to share the good things happening in the state. "When you're in a position as she is where you have a record of real, tangible successes, campaigns are fun because you get to tell that story," said Tim Pearson, a senior Haley campaign adviser. "She loves the energy that's out there. In terms of the pure politics, it's a good thing to be able to talk about yourself and what you've done."
Her challengers, including Democratic Sen. Vincent Sheheen, hope to tell a different story about the incumbent. Sheheen has often pointed to issues around the state's embattled Department of Social Services, which include allegations of mismanagement that led to deaths of children under state care. Independent Tom Ervin has said problems at the agency - and what he views as Haley's unwillingness to deal with them - prompted him to jump in the race.
Democrats also say that the tea party wave of 2010 that helped usher the relatively unknown Haley into office in 2010 won't be there for her this time.
"The people of South Carolina can't trust her to be the leader for them and have their best interests at heart," said Andrew Whalen, Sheheen's campaign manager. Whalen said Haley would use her fundraising advantage to "paper over her failures."
Pearson said Haley's camp is comfortable defending the continued attacks. "I think they can do what they want and they can talk about the governor if they want to," he said. "But at the end of the day, people want to vote for something."
Ervin made waves in the past couple of weeks with a $2 million advertisement buy. The longshot former judge and S.C. House member has sought to be the independent going after "common sense" solutions, a theme in statewide TV ads.
"Our aggressive campaigning is demonstrative of the support we have received and we are not going to pause," Ervin campaign spokesman Christian Hertenstein said. "After sharing his message on television, Tom is ready to build a coalition of South Carolinians that want to fix our crumbling roads and bridges, deliver a world class education to our children and reform ethics in state government."
Libertarian Steve French and United Citizens Morgan Bruce Reeves are also on the ballot.
The lieutenant governor's race
The lieutenant governor's race has been largely uneventful as Republican candidate Henry McMaster has declined repeated calls for a debate by Democrat Rep. Bakari Sellers. McMaster's campaign has indirectly attacked Sellers through email blasts, condemning his ability to raise money from donors outside of South Carolina.
"It's apparent that Henry McMaster is simply running on the fact that he's a Republican," Sellers said. "In fact, he probably has ideas from his first campaign for lieutenant governor in 1990. I want to talk about not what South Carolina was, or what it is, but what it can be. Unfortunately it's proven to be difficult, but that does not stymie our resolve to travel the state and gain the kind of support that we have."
Sellers' unlikely bid for the lieutenant governor's office would make him the first Democrat elected to a statewide office since 2006 and the youngest lieutenant governor in the state's history. At 29, the son of a civil rights activist is a seasoned legislator hoping to make history.
McMaster is also a seasoned politician; an attorney who held the position of South Carolina Attorney General and South Carolina Republican Party Chairman, and ran unsuccessful bids for lieutenant governor in 1990 and for governor in 2010. On Thursday, he held his first press conference for the current campaign.
Jeff Taillon, campaign spokesman for McMaster, said he expects there will be joint appearances and exchanges of ideas along the way between McMaster and Sellers.
"Henry McMaster has his own campaign plan, which involves talking to voters, listening to their concerns and answering their questions," Taillon said. "But we're not going to let other candidates dictate our schedule or our campaign plan."
U.S. Senate race, full term
Graham has spent the summer re-loading his war chest after turning back six challengers in the June GOP primary. He finished with about $2.7 million in cash left from the more than $7 million he had at the height of the primary fight. His competitors, Democrat Brad Hutto, Libertarian Victor Kocher and independent Thomas Ravenel aren't expected to raise or spend nearly as much as Graham is capable of doing.
Graham will likely resume his heavy concentration of TV ad buys in September, along with a mix of fundraisers and political appearances.
"The message is still the same: that Sen. Graham is a conservative leader who can get things done," said campaign spokesman Tate Zeigler. He added "There's definitely a national message here, with (Democrat) Harry Reid as Senate leader and (the chance of Republicans) taking back the Senate."
Hutto gave a glimpse of his strategy last month when he issued a Web-only campaign commercial that hit on Graham's longevity in Washington.
"Tell Lindsey Graham we want our Senate seat back," Hutto, a state senator from Orangeburg, said in the ad.
Hutto campaign spokesman Lachlan McIntosh said the candidate's schedule now includes fundraising and driving around the state making appearances.
Ravenel's early campaigning has included speeches in front of tea party groups, civic gatherings and other organizations as he tries to tap into the conservative unrest that Graham's opposition tried to rally during the primary. He said he has between 75 and 100 volunteers statewide but would not confirm how much of his own money he plans to put in the race.
Left undecided is whether the candidates will appear together on a one stage for a debate. Graham's supporters are wary of Ravenel who, at the same time he's a political candidate, is also filming his "Southern Charm" television show. Hutto's camp has indicated they don't want to debate unless all the candidates are invited.
U.S. Senate race, unexpired term
If things play out as Republicans predict, Tim Scott may be the biggest overall vote-getter in the state as he defends the seat he was appointed to by Gov. Haley after Jim DeMint quit to run the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Scott faces only minimal opposition from Democrat and Richland County Councilwoman Joyce Dickerson, and American Party candidate Jill Bossi. Both candidates trail far back in terms of name identification and money. As of June 30, Dickerson reported only $2,872 in cash on-hand, while Scott had more than $3.6 million available.
Dickerson said her emphasis is on fundraising and doing meet-and-greets. "We're fighting really hard and we believe we have the greatest chance in the world," she said.
Scott's campaign said they anticipate at least one debate in the race and that they don't forecast any strategy alterations from the primary where Scott stressed his conservative credentials.
"He has been consistent," said spokeswoman Katherine Mize. "I don't expect anything to change."
Whoever wins will face re-election in 2016.
Superintendent of Education
Chatter for the Superintendent of Education race has waned, after a rough primary that ended with both races in a runoff. The negativity surrounding the contest has also withered, with candidates focusing less on attacking each other and more on the issues plaguing education in South Carolina.
Republican candidate Molly Spearman said that what has surprised her the most while campaigning is the interest of the business community that students graduate ready to enter the workforce.
"We have to make sure that our students are prepared as citizens and that they have the soft skills," Spearman said. "Knowing how to show up at work on time, how to work together and collaborate. There's a new focus and I know that educators have realized that. We just have to make sure that we're doing every day in every school in South Carolina."
Meanwhile, Democratic candidate Tom Thompson said it's key for voters to realize that the next state superintendent should be a public school-public education supporter. The focus of the Department of Education under the director of Superintendent Mick Zais has been pro-home schooling, pro-vouchers, pro-everything but public education, he said.
"Education over the last three years has been damaged," Thompson said. "Another four years of the same kind of thinking will severely damage public education and will make it extremely difficult to come back from the negative barrage that public education has been witnessing over those years."
A few other races
One of the more watched down-ballot statewide races is the Secretary of State contest, where Democrat Ginny Deerin is challenging GOP incumbent Mark Hammond.
Deerin is a political pro, having run Charleston Mayor Joe Riley's last re-election effort and having co-founded Project XX, a nonprofit that works to elect more women in South Carolina. Deerin notes that she would be only the fifth woman elected to a statewide post.
While she is a Democrat, her main message has been described as more Republican because she has taken aim at waste in the office, including Hammond's commute from Spartanburg in a state car. Hammond, who was Spartanburg County's Clerk of Court, has defended his office's efficiency and said many voters like the fact that he resides outside the capital.
Neither candidate has raised much money. Hammond had only $17,000 on hand as of July. Deerin said she has raised about $35,000 and plans to raise only $60,000 for a campaign that will feature no paid ads, only social media and coverage from the news media.
While 1st Congressional District Rep. Mark Sanford faces no opposition this fall, 6th District Rep. James Clyburn -the state's only Democratic congressman -faces a challenge from Republican Anthony Culler, a banker from Kingstree.
Culler had not reported raising any money, according to the Federal Election Commission's most recent data, while Clyburn has $1.4 million and 22 years experience in office. The district, which stretches from Charleston to Richland to Sumter to Jasper counties, is the only one in the state with a majority African-American electorate.