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As runoff for Republican superintendent nominee draws near, gloves come off

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Candidates Kathy Maness and Ellen Weaver. 

Immediately following the June 14 GOP primary election for South Carolina's superintendent of education, the top two candidates headed to a runoff turned up the heat in their extended campaigns by attacking what they perceive as each others weak points.

Ellen Weaver, president of the right-leaning think tank Palmetto Promise Institute, pointed to her opponent's alleged Democratic connections. Kathy Maness, head of one of the state's top teachers' associations, reminded voters of the big-money donors backing Weaver.

"Runoff voters now have a clear choice: elect another Democrat-endorsed bureaucrat or choose a conservative Republican with the backbone and common sense to shake things up and deliver real results for kids," Weaver said in a statement, noting she fought alongside Republican party leaders for parents' rights and to return school students to in-person learning during the pandemic while Maness "was busy applauding Joe Biden and working with national unions to keep classrooms closed and kids in masks."

Maness, who led the crowded field with 30.57 percent of the vote compared to Weaver's 23.33 percent, called the primary results a clear message that South Carolina could not and should not be bought. Instead, elections should be in the hands of "thousands of passionate supporters and hundreds of volunteers over the massive spending by mega-rich elite and D.C. special interests."

A Post and Courier analysis of campaign finance records found that Weaver racked in over $300,000 of donations from big-name groups and school-choice advocates like Truist bank group president Mike Brenan; Meeting Street Schools founder Ben Navarro; and former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, who once employed Weaver for years.

Maness received about $115,000 mostly from small donations from teachers and parents, the analysis found.

Because neither garnered more than 50 percent of the votes in the primary, Maness and Weaver will face each other in a runoff on June 28.

In the days ahead, both candidates have several challenges. They need to land endorsements from the other Republicans who ran in the primary and get voters excited for a runoff — which are notorious for low turnout.

Travis Bedson, who finished third in the primary, already declared his support for Weaver. He cited her close relationship with state lawmakers and her tenure at the Education Oversight Committee, connections he believes indicate that she knows how to create change in the state. 

"Kathy is just a vote for teachers associations and teachers unions. She's not going to put students first, even though that's her slogan," he said. "She's gonna put teacher unions first over students, and that's not what I stand for."

Maness snagged an endorsement from Lynda Leventis-Wells, the sixth place finisher who is a Greenville County school board member.

Leventis-Wells said she supports Maness because of her record working as a teacher and because she has a master's degree — a legal requirement for the elected superintendent position. Weaver is currently enrolled in a master's program at Bob Jones University, the Greenville-based Christian college where she got her undergraduate degree. 

Like Maness, Leventis-Wells also criticized the amount of big-money donations Weaver received.  

“I would hate for somebody to buy their way into it and not have the experience," Leventis-Wells said.

Endorsements aside, Weaver and Maness still have to tackle the expected low voter turnout.

The June 14 election drew only 17 percent of South Carolina's registered voters. Experts predict the numbers on June 28 will be worse. 

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What might help get voters who care about education out to the polls is a good old fashioned handshake, said Patrick Kelly, Palmetto State Teacher Association's director of governmental affairs.

"The national playbooks about ads and robocalls don't work in South Carolina. It's a place where retail politics matter," he said.

He believes that campaign workers can get people to come out to support them by going door-to-door, hearing concerns from South Carolinians and earnestly responding to their troubles.

Despite whoever wins the Republican runoff, it will still be far from the end of the line. Waiting ahead in the November election is Democratic candidate Lisa Ellis, head of the educator advocacy group SC for Ed.

Experts are concerned candidates in the general election will shift their messaging from local issues like the teacher shortage in the state to more hot-button national topics like critical race theory or teaching LGBTQ+ issues in schools.

Such partisan topics have already surfaced in the South Carolina superintendent race, with many Republican candidates having come out against both in their campaigns. 

This political polarization of local elections is part of a national trend. Part of it is tactical: politicians realize that hot-button national issues will resonate and draw voters to the polls.

The pandemic only exacerbated the growing partisan tensions in education with parents developing strong opinions about whether their children should be masked.

Sherry East, the head of the South Carolina Education Association, said she is worried the topics will shift more towards partisan issues when the Republican candidate starts campaigning against Ellis.

"... I do think right now what the parties are doing is becoming too decisive about masks and COVID. They're too political about things," she said. "We've lost what's best for people, and I'm afraid that's going to happen to children."

Kelly thinks candidates should stick to topics like school safety, mental health and the teacher shortages. 

In February, the nonprofit Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement reported that there were 1,121 teacher vacancies in South Carolina. This  was the most unfilled vacancies in 20 years and had increased from 1,033 vacancies in fall 2021. At the time, East said she was alarmed because it meant conditions for teachers were so bad that they were leaving their jobs before the end of the school year. 

Sara Gregory and Maura Turcotte contributed reporting.

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Follow Hillary Flynn on Twitter @HillarySuzane.