S.C. Democrats pin hopes on Sheheen this year

SC Senator Vincent Sheheen discusses his plans to run against Governor Nikki Haley during the Blue Jamboree Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013 at the Jenkins Institute. The jamboree is a gathering of the state's democratic party leaders. Paul Zoeller/Staff

As goes state Sen. Vincent Sheheen's gubernatorial bid, so goes South Carolina's Democratic party.

That's what political observers say now that filing has closed and the contests are gearing up.

State Democratic Chair Jamie Harrison agreed.

"The crown jewel of the 2014 elections here in South Carolina is the governor's race," he said. "I think we'll sink or swim as a party based on our performance in that particular race."

South Carolina Democrats currently hold no statewide elected positions and only one of the state's seven congressional districts, and few expect that to change much this year.

"Democrats are putting their chips on Sheheen, which makes sense," said Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "He came reasonably close in 2010, though obviously (Republican Gov. Nikki) Haley is the favorite once again."

Haley beat Sheheen by a 51-47 margin in 2010, a closer margin than in most other statewide races.

Democrats are fielding candidates in only six of nine constitutional seats, with no one running for Adjutant General, Superintendent of Agriculture or Treasurer. The party also doesn't have candidates in the 1st and 4th congressional districts, which are centered in Charleston and Greenville, respectively.

Winthrop political science professor Scott Huffmon said the party once had a deeper pool of qualified candidates several ago, but that has slipped in recent years.

"Since before 2010, the Democratic party has struggled to find competitive candidates to run in top-tier races," he said. "It has been slowly building, with the exception of House seats and Senate seats that are safe."

State GOP Chair Matt Moore said the Democrats' problem recruiting candidates is the party's ideology. "They can put all the shiny marketing they want on their liberal policies but South Carolinians aren't buying them," he said. "Good ideas attract good candidates, and their problem is bad ideas."

This year, the Democratic party here also faces the national political headwinds: The party holding the presidency seldom does well in non-presidential general elections. The party has candidates in both U.S. Senate races, but Sabato's Center for Politics has ranked both seats as safe Republican ones. "Democrats have little chance in either Senate race," he said, "and they aren't going to gain seats in the House either, from the early assessments."

But Harrison said state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, could surprise in his bid for the Senate seat currently held by Sen. Lindsey Graham, who faces six GOP opponents on June 10. "It's not on anybody's radar screen in D.C. or anywhere else," Harrison said, "but Brad Hutto is an accomplished legislator -probably one of our brightest stars in the party."

Moore had this to say to anyone who thinks that Senate race will be competitive in November: "Keep dreaming. I think if you asked 100 national Democrats about Brad Hutto, 99 of them of would say, 'Who?'"

The Democrats' best congressional shot might be in the newly created 7th congressional district, where Democrat Gloria Bromell Tinubu is in a rematch against Republican Rep. Tom Rice. "She has experience running that race," Huffmon said, "but she lost by more than 12 points last time, and it was a presidential coattail year."

The state's Democratic base of African-American voters has been highly motivated to turn out in support of President Barack Obama in presidential elections, but their turnout dipped in 2010. "Democrats have got to find out how to capitalize and continue that in the absence of Obama being at the top of the ticket," Huffmon said.

But Harrison said a higher percentage of African-American voters turned out in 2010 than in previous off-year elections, "and I think we're only going to improve upon those numbers in this election cycle. ... Folks are waking up."

Huffmon said money won't be as much of a problem: It will flow if Democratic donors sense a winnable race.

"I'm assuming Vincent Sheheen is not having trouble raising money because he ran a very competitive race last time," he said. "But beyond Vincent Sheheen, a lot of folks running in marquee races are not key names for the money people in South Carolina."

Sheheen has raised $2.2 million so far, with $1.7 million on hand, according to the most recent campaign disclosure form. Haley has raised $5.9 million, with $4.3 million on hand.

While this year might not offer much hope for Democrats, a growing Hispanic population might help the party in 2016 and beyond.

"Demographic change over a long period of time may make South Carolina more competitive," Sabato said. "For now, though, Republicans have to nominate weak candidates for the Democrats to have much of a shot."

"It would take something surprising to catapult things out of the status quo," Huffmon added, "and the status quo is Republicans hanging on to virtually all of the key offices."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.