Four or more S.C. races to watch this fall

Photo illustration by Gill Guerry/Staff

COLUMBIA - The countdown to Nov. 4 marked a milestone earlier last week, when candidates enthusiastically spread the news that fewer than 100 days remain until Election Day.

In South Carolina, voters will elect the next governor, the state's second-in-command and the next schools chief, among other races.

Experts across the state echoed each other on which races will be most interesting to watch, including the race for governor and for the seat U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., holds. One theme was common: This is the year of the Republican.

"I think of the 10 Southern states, the Republicans don't have very viable opposition parties," said David Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University. "Republicans are probably going to take back the Senate."

South Carolinians will witness a rematch between Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, of Camden. Haley also has two additional challengers, Independent Tom Ervin and Libertarian Steve French.

A Palmetto Politics poll conducted by The Post and Courier had Ervin and French pulling in a low number of voters, with only 3 percent and 2 percent, respectively. Despite the result of the polls - Haley pulled 46 percent, while Sheheen garnered 42 percent - Woodard said he doesn't think the race is that close.

"What happens in South Carolina is the Republican conservative base is so large that it just overwhelms the Democrats," Woodard said. "Vincent Sheheen is a very conservative Democrat, but he has a 'D' by his side."

Though some factions of the Republican Party may not be fond of Haley, in the end, they'll likely still vote for her, said College of Charleston Political Science Professor Gibbs Knotts.

"I just don't see the Republicans who are not excited about Haley jumping ship and voting for a Democrat," Knotts said. "I think they're more likely to have a little bit lower turnout or to just vote for Haley and just not feel good about it."

Reality TV star and former state Treasurer Thomas Ravenel has created a circus in the race for the Senate seat Graham holds.

If he pulls away some of the vote from Graham, the race could be more competitive for state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said Kendra Stewart, political science professor at the College of Charleston. Libertarian Victor Kocher is also in the running.

After Graham's primary win, however, it's his race to lose.

"Senator Graham's race is important because it will suggest to his fellow Republicans that he has developed an approach to resolving the tensions among the various factions in the Republican Party in the state," said University of South Carolina Political Science Professor Mark Tompkins. "His ability to reach a comfortable margin of victory will offer evidence about the success of this strategy."

Tompkins added there's a sense that Graham is facing the new millennial version of the problem Fritz Hollings confronted during his service in the Senate - how to play a role in the national political process while maintaining his support in South Carolina.

The race for the seat U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., holds is Woodard's No. 1 race to watch because it will make Scott the first African-American from South Carolina to be elected to the Senate in more than 100 years.

The Post and Courier's recent poll showed his popularity high enough to raise the possibility he might prove to be the state's top vote getter on Nov. 4. In 2010, that was Republican Treasurer Curtis Loftis, who had no opponent.

Scott lost his main Democratic challenger, Rick Wade, in March. Richland County Democrat Councilwoman Joyce Dickerson is still in the running, but Scott's social and economic conservatism make him a very appealing candidate, Woodard said.

Scott's race is also more predictable, Tompkins said. The interest around the race will be Scott's ability to pull African-American support - support that normally breaks strongly toward Democrats.

"He seems to have succeeded in developing a widely congenial political persona, which makes it likely that his race will be unremarkable," Tompkins said. "In some ways, more interestingly, he is likely to have ample financial support which he will be able to pass along to congenial colleagues who need these resources more - earning him their gratitude and possible support in the future."

If Scott wins, he will serve the last two years remaining on former Sen. Jim DeMint's term and would be scheduled to run for re-election again in 2016.

The race for the state's No. 2 spot will be more interesting than one would suspect because it pits a young Democrat, state Rep. Bakari Sellers, against former S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster, Stewart said.

"Even if Bakari Sellers doesn't win, I think he's a name we'll see again," she added.

The race could be a window into the future of South Carolina's politics, if Sellers can gain the support of both black and white young voters, Knotts said.

There was no consensus on the state's fifth most interesting race this fall.

Democrat Gloria Tinubu is challenging U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, which is another rematch for the new 7th Congressional District seat covering the Grand Strand area, Knotts said, adding the Rice-Tinubu race is one to watch because it's one where Democrats stand a chance.

Tompkins picked the Superintendent of Education race as one that is "especially notable for the implication that education policy in the state will be governed by a moderate perspective on the challenges we face." Republican Molly Spearman is facing Democrat Tom Thompson in that race.

Stewart said the race of Secretary of State is another to monitor because it's been gaining traction as of lately.

Charleston businesswoman Ginny Deerin, who ran Mayor Joe Riley's last re-election campaign, is challenging Republican incumbent Mark Hammond.

Deerin's campaign has been outside of the norm, as far as not taking in big donations, Stewart added. Though she has been very active in social media, Stewart said she wasn't sure if that would be enough for Deerin to win.

Woodard picked House Speaker Bobby Harrell's race as one to watch, even though it's not a statewide race. It is one of the few House contests in the Lowcountry where both a Republican and Democrat are running.

Harrell faces Democrat Mary Tinkler, and Woodard said Harrell's re-election could offset the ethics investigation underway by Attorney General Alan Wilson.

"When a politician gets re-elected, that's a mandate to keep going the way they were going," Woodard said.

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.