Robert Oldendick has been following South Carolina politics for three decades and not much has changed in all that time.
We are solidly red — a safe 10-point state, with the Republicans holding a consistent and decisive advantage, roughly 55 percent to 45 percent, in statewide races, says Oldendick, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina.
There are few swing voters up for grabs here: Social conservatives in the Upstate and suburban conservatives in the Lowcountry are reliably Republican while African Americans and urban voters in Columbia and Charleston are just as reliably Democratic. And he doesn’t see that changing any time soon.
Across the South, the Democrats and the Republicans are slugging it out in some of the closest races in a generation. In Florida, both the U.S. Senate and governor’s races are on a knife’s edge. The Georgia gubernatorial contest is too close to call. Senate races in Tennessee, where Donald Trump won by 26 points, and Missouri, won by 18 points, are rated toss-ups. Beto O’Rourke has put a scare into Ted Cruz in Texas. North Carolina has a Democratic governor. Virginia has two Blue senators and a governor. Even Alabama has a Democratic senator, though it took allegations of sexual misconduct to put him there.
Not South Carolina. Seventeen days before the election, you would be forgiven for forgetting there’s a race for governor. Henry McMaster is hardly invincible — he has lost three statewide elections after all — but it beats me what is James Smith’s signature issue. A poll last week by the Trafalgar Group gave McMaster a 24-point lead, up from 14 two weeks ago.
‘’It is going to be a sweep,” says Oldendick. “It is not even going to be close.”
Oldendick says Trav Robertson, who heads the Democratic Party, has the toughest job in the state. His advice? “Drink heavily.”
But drink what?
“I like beer,” Brett Kavanaugh famously said.
Republicans drink beer, Democrats drink wine. And it helps define the challenge in a low-tax, stay-out-of-my-business state like South Carolina. George Bush beat John Kerry by 17 points here, in part, because he was a guy you would rather drink beer with. Bush, who rode out Vietnam in Texas, was somehow more manly than the Vietnam war hero.
It is cultural, and it is not going to be easy for the Democrats to find a meaningful role, much less win, in South Carolina. Playing a turnout and technology game isn’t going to get you there. The Democrats are going to have to recruit better candidates, nontraditional candidates both at the top of the ticket and the bottom. Those candidates are going to have to fit in South Carolina just as Joe Manchin fits in West Virginia.
I was born on East Bay and grew up here into the late ’70s when South Carolina was shedding its Democratic heritage. I remember Jim Edwards, a local dentist who extracted my wisdom teeth when I was a kid, knocking on our door in Mount Pleasant for the Republican Party. He was a lonely crusader in those days, but he was the future.
In Massachusetts, where I spent 30 years, Republicans have found a way to play a pivotal role in a state where they are overwhelmingly outnumbered. Voters there have a habit of electing fiscally conservative, socially moderate governors. Republican Charlie Baker, a former health care CEO, polls as the most popular governor in America. Massachusetts voters like having a Republican check on a Democratic legislature.
It is a good model for South Carolina Democrats. Whether for governor or for Lindsey Graham’s Senate seat in two years, Democrats need to look beyond the usual Statehouse suspects for candidates who can connect with moderate and independent voters. Nationally, Republicans have succeeded by running against Washington. South Carolina Democrats should be running against Republican-controlled Columbia.
While recruiting a different kind of candidate for the top of the ticket, Democrats need to do the same at the bottom. Charleston is a good place to start: The county voted Democratic in the last three presidential elections.
First-time candidate Joe Cunningham is running South Carolina’s most competitive congressional race against Republican Katie Arrington in the gerrymandered 1st District. Still, FiveThirtyEight, pollster Nate Silver’s website, gives him just a 1-in-10 chance of winning, trailing by about 8 points.
Sometime after the election, the Democrats will meet in Columbia — it happens every two years. There will be slide presentations loaded with metrics showing they knocked on more doors, made more phone calls, blasted out more emails and texts than ever before. And got swept, yet again.
Republicans will hoist a cold one to that.
Steve Bailey writes regularly for the Commentary page. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @sjbailey1060.