Dorchester Democrats picking up voters alienated by the GOP

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, visits with then-Congressman Joe Cunningham, D-South Carolina, Saturday at the Summerville Country Club during a Dorchester County Democratic Party oyster roast in 2019. The county party is courting voters who feel the modern Republican Party has abandoned them.

Jim Gardner can recall the exact moment he realized the Republican Party had abandoned him.

And party officials should pay attention to his story, because there are a lot of Jim Gardners out there.

He’d never been an activist, never attended a party meeting or convention, but Gardner had always voted GOP. For most of his life, it seemed the best fit for his fiscally conservative, socially liberal views.

But five years ago, while living in North Carolina, Gardner became concerned about the party’s direction. So he dropped by the local Republican headquarters to volunteer.

He supported Ohio Gov. John Kasich for president and said he couldn’t vote for Donald Trump. Gardner considered him disrespectful to people, particularly women and minorities.

Gardner had begun to think about the world he would leave to his grandchildren, and he felt the culture reflected by politics was far more important than any single policy … or personality. He believed leaders should show respect and empathy for others, favor compassion over intimidation, division and fear.

It apparently wasn’t what the people at HQ wanted to hear.

“I felt like I was shut down,” Gardner says. “They weren’t interested in my help.”

So, feeling politically homeless, he moved on. And a few years ago, Gardner and his wife moved to the Lowcountry.

Where, just recently, he joined the Dorchester County Democratic Party.

In the first few months of 2021, tens of thousands of Republican voters in swing states — Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina among them — have changed their registration status to independent or Democrat (South Carolina doesn’t require voters to register by party).

A recent Gallup poll found Democrats now hold a 9-point national advantage in party affiliation, the biggest divide in a decade. Republicans can’t attract a majority of college-educated voters, and their dominance in the suburbs is subsiding.

That’s probably because rational people are turned off by loony conspiracy theories about stolen elections and the pandemic. Which is about the only consistent message coming from the party these days.

Gardner has made a lot of friends here, many of them from off. They hold a variety of political views, at least that’s his impression. Polite folks tend to avoid such turbulent subjects nowadays. But he believes many feel the same as he does.

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One of those friends was with the Dorchester County Democratic Party, and he invited Gardner to a meeting. Everyone there, he was assured, respected everyone else’s beliefs.

“I found the views of the people ranged from moderate to progressive to almost independent,” Gardner says.

Eventually, Gardner joined and is now a member of the party’s welcoming committee — because, he says, they should be willing to accept others like him. That’s truly a big tent.

Yes, as with the GOP, the Democratic Party’s loudest voices sometimes come from the fringe. But that’s as far as the “both sides” debate goes. Elected Dems merely tolerate their extremists; Republicans are letting theirs drive.

South Carolina, and particularly Dorchester County, is unlikely to turn blue anytime soon. But if this nonsense persists, the newcomers moving here from the Northeast and Midwest — an increasing number of which think like Gardner — might soon hold considerable sway in elections.

See: Charleston County.

Although the GOP lost the House, Senate and White House in the past three years, party leaders apparently see no need to correct course. They are content to embrace conspiracy, no matter how nonsensical. They claim the Jan. 6 coup attempt at the U.S. Capitol was the work of leftists, yet oppose an independent commission that might prove (or disprove) their claims.

Only sheep don’t recognize such cognitive dissonance.

Most elected Republicans know their party is slinging malarkey. But over the past two decades, they have built a base obsessed with increasingly bizarre conspiracies. Any elected official who strays too far from imagined grievances is likely to get primaried out of office by someone further to the right.

See: Mark Sanford.

That’s not a long-term, sustainable electoral strategy. If Republicans nominate increasingly extremist candidates, which can happen when you alienate moderate voters, that makes it easier for Democrats to win. That’s just math.

Gardner is a reasonable man with good perspective. He doesn’t view politics as a team sport, and would much rather see two healthy political parties. That, he correctly notes, is much better for the country.

“I’d love to see the Republican Party right itself in the future, but I don’t see any interest in that,” Gardner says. “I’ve talked to some who feel the same as me, but they’re not ready to make the leap.”

Yet.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.