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Closest Statehouse race highlights how the US Senate contest hurt down-ballot Democrats

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South Carolina State of the State (copy)

Gov. Nikki Haley shakes hands with Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg (right), following the State of the State address at the South Carolina Statehouse on Jan. 20, 2016, in Columbia. The tens of millions of dollars that poured into South Carolina to topple U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham — along with the celebrities who lined up to back his opponent — backfired big time. File/Sean Rayford

COLUMBIA — The tens of millions of dollars that poured into South Carolina to topple U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham — along with the celebrities who lined up to back his opponent — backfired big time.

Not only did the national spotlight solidify Graham's Republican support in a state where longtime residents generally don't like outsiders telling them what to do, it spelled doom for Democrats down the ballot, and not just in districts with growing conservative populations.

Instead of the nail-biting finish pollsters expected between Graham and former state Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison, who lost by double digits, the closest state-level race occurred in a state House seat anchored in a rural, majority-Black county that also happens to be the incumbent's last name.

You'd think that would be an easy win for a Black Democrat who's garnered national attention himself as an attorney representing the families of Black victims including Walter Scott, who was killed by a North Charleston officer in 2015.   

Instead, Rep. Justin Bamberg, of Bamberg, hung on to his seat by just 59 votes against a Republican who spent $3,000 of his own money on some signs and mailers but otherwise didn't campaign. 

Glenn Posey of Ruffin didn't have a website or social media presence or, according to his campaign filings, take in a single donation. He didn't respond to local media for pre-election articles or to The Post and Courier for this one. But he was on the ballot as a Republican in a year that set records for straight-ticket voting and turned South Carolina a deeper shade of red.

The nation's most expensive U.S. Senate race ever, in the 23rd most populous state, nationalized Statehouse races, reducing local contests to Republican versus Democrat, Graham versus Congress' liberal leaders, and national mantras like "defund the police" that clearly scared the majority of South Carolina voters.   

"The degree of national attention that was put on our state with that race worked out really well for people who live in super Democratic areas because it got them fired up, but it also fired up people on the other side," said Bamberg, who won a fourth term with 50.15 percent of more than 16,400 votes cast, making it the only state-level contest sent to an automatic recount.

"For the Democrats who represent areas that are closer to 50/50 or who are in Republican-leaning districts or they have really conservative people who don’t associate generally with either party, it was not good for us," he said. "People go into their corners and you don't get as much crossover vote." 

Bamberg's district spans 70 miles, incorporating all of heavily Democratic Bamberg County — where the 33-year-old received more than 70 percent of the vote — plus very rural, conservative portions of Barnwell and Colleton counties that went for Posey.  

Especially in rural areas, local issues couldn't cut through the noise — literally and figuratively — that came with hundreds of millions of dollars of advertising in the Graham-Harrison race. Harrison became the first U.S. Senate candidate ever to raise $100 million, resulting in Graham pleading for money during his appearances on Fox News. By Election Day, Harrison had raised at least $130 million and Graham $108 million. The final tallies won't be known until next month.

"Jaime Harrison did more to energize the right than any Republican candidate was going to be able to do," said state Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield. "At first, all that money and the little videos from movie stars were kind of a novelty but then after a while, and I heard this in conversation with a number of people, people did not like the outside influence, even more so coming from California." 

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When actress Alyssa Milano asked her Twitter followers to send Harrison money, for example, the state GOP wanted people to know it, sending it in an email blast as evidence of Hollywood "liberal elites" trying to buy the seat.

Instead of picking up several seats in the Statehouse thought to be turning more blue than purple, Democrats lost five incumbents, including the party's 2010 and 2014 nominee for governor, Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden, and its 2018 lieutenant governor candidate, Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell of Lancaster.    

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, a Columbia Democrat, said the nationalization effect was worsened because Harrison's campaign was run by out-of-state people who didn't understand South Carolina or take the advice of local politicos. 

Attacking Graham as too pro-gun, for instance, in a state where even many Democratic legislators are big Second Amendment supporters was seen as a gift for Republicans.  

"I was trying to get the word out, 'Hey, the message has got to change,'" said Rutherford, a 22-year legislator, adding he saw the red wave coming. "This was not something people were sitting back watching and later surprised about. This is something (Democratic) elected officials were complaining about the entire time."

Most South Carolina Democrats are not like national Democrats, and educating voters on that needs to be part of future strategies, said Bamberg, a self-described "gun guy" who called the defund-the-police slogan "one of the stupidest things I've ever heard."

"If anything, we need to infuse money into law enforcement and put it in the right places. Pay these cats more," said Bamberg, who personally understands the struggles and sacrifices of police work.  

His father, the senior investigator for the local solicitor and former Blackville police chief, was also on the ballot and handily won the Bamberg County sheriff's race.  

"Black folks and Democrats, minority communities, don’t like crime any more than anybody else does," he said. "Nobody likes crime other than criminals."

When the pandemic is over, he plans to hold a series of meetings in the more conservative parts of his district.

He's already got his opening line: "Yes, I'm Justin Bamberg. I'm 33 and a minority and a Democrat, but don't think of Nancy Pelosi if you hate her. Let's talk and take the time to listen to each other."

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

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