Study finds money does the talking in S.C. races

The South Carolina Statehouse

COLUMBIA - South Carolina legislative races are among the least competitive in the nation, according to a study that looked at the role money and incumbency plays in elections.

The analysis by the National Institute on Money in State Politics concluded that incumbents with lots of cash were virtually unbeatable in the 2011 and 2012 elections. Furthermore, Georgia and South Carolina had the lowest percentage of contested legislative seats in general elections.

The analysis didn't examine the 2014 elections, but the majority of South Carolina's elected officials returned to office last November. The only Statehouse incumbents who didn't retain their seats didn't seek re-election, except for two who were defeated by party rivals in the primary election.

Incumbents have "huge war chests" that can often make them "impregnable," said David Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University. The best time to beat an incumbent is during a primary election when different voters go to the polls than in general elections, he added.

"A lot of these people if they're challenged in a primary, then they really have a hard time, because sometimes the electorate that votes on primary day just isn't sympathetic," Woodard said. "It's really easy to target incumbents in a primary if they're unpopular."

Two Republican incumbents, Don Bowen, of Anderson County, and Tracy Edge, of Horry County, lost in the primary last year in which the winner faced no opponent in the general election. Rep. Jonathon Hill, R-Townville, replaced Bowen, while Rep. Greg Duckworth, R-North Myrtle Beach, replaced Edge.

It's ironic how few incumbents are challenged in South Carolina, when polls show voters have little faith in elected bodies as a whole, said Kendra Stewart, a political science professor at the College of Charleston.

"Part of it is people still thinking their (congressional representative) or their legislator is doing a good job, even if the body overall is not," Stewart said. "But part of it, too, is the way the people in power have created a system that encourages their re-election."

Stewart said lawmakers have redrawn districts to give their party an advantage with registered voters, and incumbents have fundraising advantages in addition to having high name recognition.

Most people vote for someone because they recognize their name, even if they don't know his or her voting record, Stewart said. And in South Carolina, incumbents with an "R" after their name, are much more likely to get re-elected.

Charleston saw some of that during the 2014 elections, when former House Speaker Bobby Harrell received 39 percent of the vote despite being disqualified after pleading guilty to misusing his campaign account for personal benefit less than two weeks before Election Day.

There are several reasons Harrell got those votes: people may not have been aware he wasn't eligible since his name was still on the ballot; Republicans voting a straight party ticket; and supporters undeterred by his having resigned and unwilling to vote for a Democrat.

As a Democrat in a heavily Republican district, his successor, Rep. Mary Tinkler, D-Charleston, is one incumbent who will not have the usual advantages if she runs for re-election in 2016, Woodard said.

"I would be surprised if she can prevail against a Republican," he added. "In this state they look at the party ID."

A different analysis by the institute looked at term limits and how that affected who was elected. While term limits opened up seats and encouraged first-time candidates to run for office, they also often created musical chairs in which term-limited incumbents used their name recognition and cash to change offices.

Another downside is that lobbyists end up with more power and writing more legislation, said Gibbs Knotts, political science professor at the College of Charleston.

Rookie lawmakers often turn to lobbyists to educate them. That's OK, as long as everyone is equally represented, Knotts said. But most of the time in American politics, money and business interests typically have better representation.

There is some value to having experienced lawmakers who understand the complexities of the South Carolina or U.S. government, Knotts said. But it also means that they can get comfortable in their seat once elected.

"Term limits aren't good or bad," Knotts said. "You just got to know that they may not solve the problem and that there's going to be some unintended consequences, as well."