After a couple of shipwrecks at the polls, Charleston County Republicans have decided they’re gonna need a bigger boat.
And they may have found the right captain.
County party officials have asked former Charleston City Councilman Maurice Washington to take over as their chairman, and he plans to give them an answer today.
“That would be like a dream team going forward — Maurice, Russ Leach and having Mark Hartley coordinate with the state party,” says former county party chairman Larry Kobrovsky. “That puts our vision in the best possible light.”
He’s absolutely right. Washington is a thoughtful man with a strong grasp of community issues. As importantly, his idea of politics is more common ground than scorched-earth. That would be a smart tactic for a county party that has been absolutely thumped in the past two election cycles.
Not insignificantly, Washington also would become the party’s first African American chairman since at least Reconstruction. That would be a good message to send.
Frankly, Washington is the epitome of the American dream. He grew up in Charleston public housing, worked his way through college at S.C. State and got himself elected to City Council at the tender age of 27.
He’s run for mayor twice, and the Legislature a couple of times (as both a Republican and a Democrat, which speaks to his moderate demeanor) and is now a successful business owner.
More importantly, Washington has a large worldview the local party could use these days. Some local Republicans have quietly groused that the party is too old, too insular and too monochromatic to compete. That may be a tad harsh — there are also some significant demographic hurdles — but there’s some truth to it, too.
Unlike the rest of South Carolina, where the GOP has a built-in advantage, Republicans have quickly become the minority party in Charleston County. In 2016 and 2018, Democrats held a nearly 9,000-vote advantage in straight-ticket voting.
In those two elections, the GOP lost three countywide offices — auditor, treasurer and register of deeds — that had been held by Republicans for years. In 2016, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in the county by almost 14,000 votes.
Even Gov. Henry McMaster — who’s been the most Lowcountry-friendly chief executive we’ve seen in years — lost the county in 2018 by a 57 percent — 42 percent margin.
Those numbers look like (gasp) the Democrats’ scores in the rest of South Carolina. And don’t forget, Joe Cunningham won the 1st District congressional race largely because of his 17,000-vote advantage in Charleston.
The party has seemingly been unable to right this ship, and it didn’t help when the now former chairman John Kuhn quit and stormed out of a meeting last week. Makes the party look, well, like it’s in disarray.
As a result, most Republicans running in Charleston County this year are running scared. They’ve seen the numbers and effects of the past two countywide elections. Democrats are now fielding candidates in several races where they didn’t bother to compete in years’ past.
Unfortunately, some of them are targeting the best Republicans in the county … but that’s another story.
Bottom line, all of the sudden an “R” next to your name on the ballot is not an automatic win — not in Charleston, anyway.
Decades ago, Republicans preached a “big tent” philosophy, but these days national Republicans have abandoned that idea. Instead, they’re circling the demographic wagons and catering to far-right primary voters.
But Charleston County Republicans, at least under Kobrovsky’s leadership, have been trying to steer their voters in the opposite direction. The best example is the Black History Month Dinner they’ve hosted the past two years in an attempt to foster community relations and grow their support.
Washington is the next logical step in that evolution, particularly since all his siblings are Democrats. He knows how to be diplomatic, embrace a broader viewpoint … and think outside a small tent.
This week, Washington has been talking with family and community friends for diverse opinions about his decision. He says Republicans have made some good strides, and he’d like to expand on that by working with folks on both sides of the aisle.
“When people come together, good things can happen,” Washington says.
That's exactly the position Republicans should take, not only in Charleston County but nationwide.
Ultimately, it may be the only way to avoid another iceberg come November.