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Republicans solidify control in SC with election sweep as Democrats seek answers

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U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., celebrates his reelection over democratic challenger Jaime Harrison on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, at an election night watch party at the Pastides Alumni Center at the University of South Carolina. John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — In races all across South Carolina from the top of the ballot on down, Republicans wiped out Democrats in massive proportions Tuesday, exceeding even party leaders' best hopes and solidifying GOP control of the state for years to come.

The election amounted to nothing short of a bloodbath for South Carolina Democrats. They lost not just almost every Republican seat they were hoping to flip, but also many of their own incumbents, including some of the party's most esteemed legislators in districts that were hardly on the radar of possible upsets.

The Republican landslide came despite an unprecedented flood of money pouring in to Democratic coffers thanks to national attention on the U.S. Senate race between GOP incumbent Sen. Lindsey Graham and Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison.

Those funds gave the state's longtime minority party the resources they had long insisted were the only missing element preventing them from making the state more competitive, leading to goals of ousting Graham and a host of other Republican incumbents at the state and local level.

Instead, Graham crushed Harrison by double digits, besting his own campaign's rosiest expectations.

GOP challenger Nancy Mace upset U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, reclaiming a longtime Republican Charleston-based seat after just a single term in Democratic hands.

And Republicans expanded their majorities to historic levels in both the state Senate and House. GOP challengers picked off longtime incumbents who included the Democrats' 2010 and 2014 gubernatorial nominee, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden, and their 2018 lieutenant governor nominee, state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell of Lancaster.

Republicans also won two other Upstate Senate seats held by Democratic incumbents.

The victories came at an opportune time for Republicans, as they now head into the redistricting process in one of their strongest positions in modern history and have the ability to draw new lines that could lock in their congressional and Statehouse dominance for the next decade.

"The fact of the matter is last night was a good night for the Republicans in South Carolina," said S.C. Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson in blunt remarks outside party headquarters Wednesday afternoon. "Anybody trying to spin it otherwise would be extremely disingenuous."

A wide array of factors came into play in South Carolina's red surge, many of which will take extensive time and data crunching for political experts to analyze over the months to come.

Republicans swiftly pointed to their extensive field operation. They said the operation was five times bigger than any get-out-the-vote program the party had ever run before, thanks to significant financial investments in the party by Graham, who raised more than $100 million to come close to matching Harrison's huge haul.

"Our ground game was what was so crucial in delivering the vote," S.C. GOP chairman Drew McKissick said Wednesday. "This was about fundamentals. We had great candidates with a great message; we had a great ground game that got our votes out, and that's why we got spectacular results."

That stood in stark contrast to Democrats, who largely held back on door-knocking until the final month of the race because of the coronavirus pandemic. Robertson said he felt they had a responsibility not to risk the health of their staff, volunteers and voters.

"It is clear across the country that Republicans have one perception and one view of coronavirus, and the Democrats clearly have another," Robertson said.

But Robertson acknowledged that, in retrospect, he wished Democrats had launched their ground game earlier. Republicans said their canvassers wore masks, were trained on how to operate safely and step far back from the doors.

Even if Democrats had matched Republicans in the field, it's not clear they would have been able to come close to overcoming the built-in advantages Republicans enjoyed statewide.

Democrats long expected that Harrison would need to outperform the party's presidential nominee Joe Biden by about 5 to 8 percentage points in South Carolina. In the end, even that would have been far too little, as Trump won the state by double digits for the second consecutive election cycle.

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But Harrison always struggled to answer the question of what a Trump-Harrison voter would look like. With just a few thousand ballots still outstanding late Wednesday, Harrison was outperforming Biden by less than a single percentage point.

Down-ballot, officials and strategists in both parties agreed that a deeply polarized electorate focused almost exclusively on national issues gave Republicans a substantial advantage in a state where many voters fundamentally identify as ideologically conservative.

Straight-ticket voting has increased for Republicans over recent election cycles, making it more difficult for down-ballot Democrats in conservative districts to cultivate identities that are independent of their national party and outperform their top-of-the-ticket nominees.

The mass of spending by Harrison and Graham made it even more difficult for down-ballot candidates to break through, with many unable to afford higher TV advertising rates and, even if they were, incapable of cutting through the cacophonous noise of a divisive election year.

"Anytime you have that much money infused into a campaign talking about the issues at the top of the ticket, you're going to have a nationalization of all the races up and down the ballot," said longtime S.C. Republican strategist Rob Godfrey.

There were a few bright spots for Democrats, mostly in Charleston County, which continued a blue trend that it has traversed for several years. The Democratic challenger for Charleston sheriff, Kristin Graziano, upset Republican incumbent Al Cannon in one of the party's top victories.

A couple of potentially endangered state House Democrats in the Lowcountry who flipped Republican seats in 2018 also held on for reelection.

In the closing days of the race, Harrison began to lay out the case for how his campaign had benefited S.C. Democrats long-term, helping to build a stronger party infrastructure, train a new generation of operatives and build a fundraising email list that would rival some of the country's top politicians.

"I really do believe we've helped move the dial in terms of Democratic politics and where we are, and I think we will be better for it," he said during a stop at a Columbia voting location Tuesday.

State Rep. Wendy Brawley, D-Columbia, said she felt Harrison had "proven to a lot of people that South Carolina can be in play."

Some Democrats held out hope that they would face a better environment in midterm elections for state-level races like governor than they did for federal races during a presidential year. 

But they acknowledged that the path forward appeared far more daunting than it had just a few days earlier and feared the loss would make it more difficult to convince national donors to invest in South Carolina again.

Overall, the picture that emerged of South Carolina politics after Tuesday's votes were counted was multiple shades redder than many observers expected heading into the election, making some strategists question their preconceptions about the state's chances of getting more competitive in the future.

Unlike in the neighboring states of Georgia and North Carolina, South Carolina's big cities do not make up nearly a large enough share of the state's electorate to overcome vast swaths of rural areas that are increasingly Republican.

New residents to the state are often moving, in part, because of the state's political reputation, not in hopes of changing it. Retirees are flooding to areas like Horry and Beaufort counties, and business-minded conservatives are heading to York County to be close to Charlotte while paying lower taxes.

White working-class voters, once a core demographic of the Democratic Party, have shifted toward Republicans in growing numbers, especially since the start of Trump's campaign that upended the American electorate in a number of ways.

Ultimately, Democrats now must figure out how to make inroads with voters that had rejected them in record numbers. 

"We will truly need to change every facet of how we communicate with voters and what we say to them after this election," said former S.C. Democratic Party Executive Director Amanda Loveday. "If we do not, we will continue to be in a super-minority for decades to come."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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