COLUMBIA — Just as South Carolina Democrats planned to solidify campaign efforts for the November general election, the party instead finds itself grappling with a mounting pile of internal issues.
The top fundraiser for the state party and its marquee 2018 congressional candidate, hired in part because so few Democratic operatives have experience successfully raising money in South Carolina, has been ousted under shadowy circumstances.
The party's top-of-the-ticket gubernatorial nominee has spent the past two weeks without a campaign manager and replaced another senior staffer Thursday.
Meanwhile, some county chairs and powerful state lawmakers have been grumbling about the party's decision to abandon a high-profile congressional candidate amid revelations of a domestic violence incident from decades ago.
For the Palmetto State's longtime minority party, whose members are hoping a national "blue wave" against President Donald Trump could vault them back into electoral contention in this historically Republican state, the string of complications in recent months threatens to hinder their chances of riding it.
South Carolina Democratic Party chairman Trav Robertson brushed aside the party's recent difficulties as little more than bumps along the road to a successful November, describing it as "the natural evolution of campaigns after a rough-and-tumble primary season."
But even with favorable national conditions, experts say turning the tide in South Carolina will require perfect execution from Democratic campaigns.
"It's going to make it harder," said Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at the College of Charleston. "They have some time to get their ducks in a row, but they have to do it quickly."
State party fundraiser
The party's recent woes began following an intern's complaints that fundraising director Will Blanton had created a hostile work environment, according to a complaint document viewed by The Post and Courier.
After a review of the allegations, the party decided to split from Blanton in June.
Democratic Party leaders have not yet hired a replacement. Robertson declined to comment on the details of Blanton's departure, citing a policy against discussing personnel issues.
Blanton declined to discuss his status with the party, but said, "I'm not now or ever have been in the habit of alerting or talking to the media when a client hires me, when a client fires me, when I fire a client or when we mutually agree to part ways. Personally, I think that any campaign staffer or consultant who does that is showing rather poor form."
The party has continued with its fundraising efforts, but Blanton's exit creates an organizational hole at a key time in the electoral cycle.
Blanton also was a fundraising consultant for Democrat Joe Cunningham's congressional campaign in the state's 1st Congressional District along the Lowcountry coast.
But his contract was not renewed shortly after the primary, Cunningham campaign strategist Tyler Jones said.
Cunningham has proven to be a standout bright spot for S.C. Democrats, attracting strong interest from national organizations as he attempts to become the first Democrat to win the seat in almost four decades.
Part of the optimism stems from him facing a relative political newcomer in Republican Katie Arrington — a Trump-backed, first-term state lawmaker who unseated Mark Sanford in the GOP primary.
Smith campaign turnover
Democratic gubernatorial nominee James Smith is still looking for his fourth campaign manager in nine months — a sign of recent turbulence that has left some allies uneasy about the path ahead.
A week after handily winning the Democratic primary last month, the Columbia lawmaker parted ways with campaign manager Mike McCauley.
And on Thursday, Smith replaced communications director Alyssa Miller, who left for a consulting firm in Connecticut, with former newspaper editorial page editor Brad Warthen. His team also named Noah Barker, a 17-year-old who was just elected governor of the youth program Palmetto Boys State, to run the campaign's social media.
National Democrats have long eyed Smith — a combat veteran with a reputation of working across party lines over 22 years in the Statehouse — as the ideal recruit to run for South Carolina governor.
But the internal problems on Smith's campaign could also risk diminishing the interest of the Democratic Governors Association. The national group has significant resources to help candidates if they can prove themselves to be viable to upset contenders but is also wary of doling out precious funds and manpower to struggling campaigns.
Alex Japko, a spokesman for the DGA, dismissed the campaign staff shakeups as a common move in the transition to the general election and described Smith as "a very strong candidate."
But Smith has little room for error since several high-powered GOP operatives with plenty of experience winning statewide in South Carolina are leading Republican Gov. Henry McMaster's campaign, including the chief strategist for Nikki Haley's wins as governor.
A month and a half after Democratic congressional candidate Archie Parnell's divorce records emerged showing he beat his ex-wife in the 1970s, some local officials have raised questions about the state party's swift move to distance themselves from the former Wall Street executive from Sumter.
The party leveraged all the muscle it had to try to convince Parnell to drop out of the race. Robertson, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the state's leading Democratic politician, among others, all urged Parnell to withdraw.
Still, Parnell stayed in and defeated a trio of little-known contenders to easily win the Democratic nomination in June. He faces U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, in November.
Now, the party is facing blowback from some lawmakers — including longtime state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, and Legislative Black Caucus chairman John King, D-York — as well as several county chairs in the district for ditching Parnell.
"I believe that our party has been clear about who we are supporting because the voters spoke in our Democratic primary," King said Thursday.
After many aides quit the campaign, Parnell's apparatus has been largely re-staffed, including with some members of Parnell's 2017 special election team. Johnston Mayor Terrence Culbreath will now be managing Parnell's operation.
The national and state party have made clear that they will not change their tune on Parnell just because he is the nominee, and other party leaders in the district have stood by them.
But the unusual situation promises to continue creating headaches for the party, on top of other challenges, as they head into the fall.