COLUMBIA — While the high-profile races for president and Congress have garnered much of the attention this election cycle, control of South Carolina's state Senate is also up for grabs next month, and both Democrats and Republicans have set their sights on a number of districts they hope to flip.
The top targets for Democrats center around the Lowcountry, with as many as four Republican-held seats that the party's strategists view as viable to potentially change hands. Republicans are particularly focused on a pair of Democratic-held districts in the Upstate that have continued to trend their way in recent years.
With the current margin in the 46-person chamber sitting at 27 Republicans and 19 Democrats, whichever direction those races swing could have a significant impact on the balance of power at the state government level.
In the unlikely but possible scenario that Democrats win all of their target races and hold on to all of their most vulnerable incumbents, the Senate would be tied at 23 lawmakers from each party, giving the state's longtime minority party an equal footing that could block any partisan legislation from advancing.
On the other hand, if Republicans expand their majority, it could make it easier for them to pass more controversial bills and end filibusters even with a handful of defections from their own ranks.
The races hold especially high stakes this election cycle because the margin of the next Senate session could also have a significant impact on the outcome of the redistricting process that will begin next year, potentially influencing the partisan makeup of the Legislature for the ensuing decade.
The state Senate contests come amid a backdrop of increasingly polarized national political disputes, prompting some strategists in both parties to expect that the down-ballot results could track more closely with the top-of-the-ticket races than in previous election cycles.
"It's just such a partisan year, and people are going straight Republican or straight Democratic more than we've ever seen it happen," said longtime S.C. GOP consultant Wesley Donehue, who is advising Senate Republicans. "Most likely, this will be the least localized election cycle we've ever seen."
That nationalized environment is compounded by the fact that the flood of TV ads in the U.S. Senate race between Republican incumbent Lindsey Graham and Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison has made it more expensive for down-ballot candidates to run their own ads and break through the noise.
"The airwaves are so cluttered that none of these candidates can get through with their own message on TV," Donehue said.
Still, Senate Democrats, whose incumbents outperformed their top-of-the-ticket candidates in a number of races in 2016, are hoping they will be able to do the same in 2020.
"Especially when you're talking about incumbents, you really cannot discount people knowing, trusting, leaning on these folks who are fixtures in their community," said S.C. Democratic caucus spokeswoman Meghan Durant.
"When people have a problem, they are not going to pick up the phone and call the president," Durant said. "They're going to call (Democratic senators) Nikki Setzler or Glenn Reese or Floyd Nicholson because they know they can get the job done."
In at least a couple of cases, that appears to be holding true.
A pair of Democratic-held districts in the Midlands that should in theory be ripe for Republican turnover have instead become less competitive than expected in the closing weeks due to the independent reputations cultivated by the incumbents: State Sens. Dick Harpootlian, D-Columbia, and Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden.
But several other incumbents in both parties remain at risk as Election Day approaches.
Here are a few of the top races to watch on Nov. 3, according to strategists and campaign officials from both parties.
1. District 41 (Charleston, Dorchester): Republican incumbent Sandy Senn vs. Democratic challenger Sam Skardon
From Day 1 of the 2020 election cycle, the highest priority for Democrats has been unseating state Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, after her district voted for Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham in the 2018 midterms, when Senn was not up for reelection.
Sam Skardon, a small business lender with political experience working for the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., was just the type of candidate the party was hoping to recruit to challenge her, and solid fundraising allowed him to go up early with TV ads in September introducing himself to voters.
2. District 10 (Greenwood, Abbeville, McCormick, Saluda): Democratic incumbent Floyd Nicholson vs. Republican challenger Billy Garrett
Nicholson, the former longtime mayor of Greenwood who first rose to prominence in the area decades ago due to his prowess on the high school football field, won reelection by less than 1,000 votes in 2016.
Republicans believe Nicholson faces a stronger opponent this year in attorney Billy Garrett, a candidate they expect can close the gap in a conservative district.
3. District 11 (Spartanburg): Democratic incumbent Glenn Reese vs. Republican challenger Josh Kimbrell
Reese is a similarly well-known fixture in his hometown of Spartanburg, where he owns several Krispy Kreme donut franchises and has represented the district in the state Senate for almost three decades.
But Kimbrell, a small business owner and conservative radio talk show host who placed fourth in the 2018 GOP primary to replace U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy before running for the state Senate, has argued that Spartanburg voters like Reese's donuts but not his policy views.
4. District 43 (Charleston, Beaufort, Colleton): Republican incumbent Chip Campsen vs. Democratic challenger Richard Hricik
A Charleston attorney, Hricik has given Campsen one of his first challenges in years and recently went up with his first TV ad focused on supporting public education.
But Republicans are optimistic that Campsen's reputation as one of the General Assembly's foremost conservation supporters over more than two decades in office will help him outperform his party's top-of-the-ticket candidates in a sprawling coastal district.
5. District 44 (Berkeley, Charleston, Dorchester): GOP open seat — Republican Brian Adams vs. Democrat Debbie Chatman Bryant
Republican incumbent Paul Campbell announced earlier this year he would not seek reelection, creating an open race for his seat.
Retired North Charleston police officer Brian Adams, who ran unsuccessfully for Berkeley County sheriff in 2014, won the GOP primary, while MUSC nursing associate dean Debbie Chatman Bryant scored the Democratic nod.
6. District 37 (Berkeley, Charleston): Republican incumbent Larry Grooms vs. Democratic challenger Kathryn Whitaker
Grooms, like Campsen, has not faced Democratic opposition in several election cycles. That changed early in this one when Whitaker, a marketing and communications professional, launched her campaign and got off to a fast fundraising start.
The district covers some of the more conservative areas of Berkeley County, and Grooms is hoping his influence as longtime chairman of the transportation committee and his steadfast defense of state-owned utility Santee Cooper, which is headquartered in his district, will lift him to a 7th full term in office.
7. District 26 (Lexington, Aiken, Calhoun, Saluda): Democratic incumbent Nikki Setzler vs. Republican challenger Chris Smith
As Senate minority leader and the longest-serving member in the Legislature, Setzler has cast himself for years as a "caring conservative" and had no problem comfortably dispatching GOP challengers in a district that favors Republicans in other races on the ballot.
Donehue said he thinks this year could be different and anticipated that Republicans will make a late play to take down the opposition's top legislator. But Durant countered that Setzler's deep roots in the community will propel him to yet another four years in office.