COLUMBIA — Smarting from a loss in this week’s 1st District congressional special election, S.C. Democrats are looking at how to make inroads in 2014 and beyond.
Their plan is be patient, pitch the American dream and go for younger voters as Democrats head into a busy election season, topped by an expected gubernatorial rematch between Republican Gov. Nikki Haley of Lexington and Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden.
“There is a whole new generation of folks who are growing up who have black friends, who have Hispanic friends, who have gay friends,” newly elected state Democratic chairman Jaime Harrison said. “They’re more tolerant for a lot of the things that we have seen as ‘Democratic.’ Those are the people we are going to talk to.”
That means shifting strategy to some degree, using fewer traditional television ads and more web-only pitches, for instance.
Former state Rep. Boyd Brown, a Fairfield County Democrat who now is a Democratic National Committee member, said his party has a lot of catching up to do.
“The Republicans are reaping what they sowed in the 1970s and ’80s,” he said. “While the Democrats were sitting fat and happy, they have started beating us bad. ... We have to get a bench. When the (state) convention looks less like the old folks home and more like a college campus, then we can move forward.”
‘Party of whining’
The congressional loss along the Lowcountry coast was particularly hard on Democrats, who have not elected a governor or U.S. senator from South Carolina since 1998 or won a statewide election since 2006.
Ex-Gov. Mark Sanford, whose personal failings remain fresh, held a slim margin over Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch in the last poll released before Tuesday’s special election.
But Republican voters came out in force, and Sanford won by 9 percentage points.
Democratic leaders were quick to say Colbert Busch cut into the Republican margin in the district, where GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won by 18 percentage points. They also noted that the newly redrawn district was engineered by the GOP-dominated General Assembly to be won by Republican.
Brown said Democrats can’t lean on excuses.
“Like the national GOP, we are known as the party of whining,” Brown said. “We’re a bunch of losers. We look for someone to blame instead of ourselves. We blame the Republicans for gerrymandering. But we lost all those (legislative) races, so they can gerrymander the districts.”
Now, S.C. Democrats are hoping Sanford’s election will give them a chance to grab the moral high ground, allowing them to capitalize on the former governor’s personal conduct and ethics questions raised about Haley while she was a lawmaker. (The Lexington Republican has been twice cleared of those charges.)
In addition, Democrats said they plan to make sure voters know about how GOP politicians fight against issues that benefit South Carolinians – the 40-hour workweek that unions helped create and Medicaid expansion to aid the uninsured.
Republicans in the solid-red state see little to worry about.
“The Democrats are at a crossroads,” S.C. GOP executive director Alex Stroman said. “They can spin it as much as they want. The fact is they are in disarray, and they need to do some soul searching if they ever want to become a competitive party again.”
No ‘quick fix’
Harrison said he is working to get voters to back Democrats without moving his party to the center politically.
“The sad thing in this state is that things are still very racially polarized,” Harrison said. “I know there are some folks who don’t support the Democratic Party because they look at it as a black party. My job is to get people to look past that.”
That will require Democrats wresting back the mantle of being the party of the American dream, he said.
“It is about the belief that every single person born in this country or who comes to this country should have the ability to live up to their God-given ability,” Harrison said. “It’s not about increasing taxes and spending more money.”
Harrison expects Democrats to claim wins in 2014 and the state’s political balance of power to shift over the next two election cycles.
However, Haley political adviser Tim Pearson said Sanford’s win is a sign that South Carolina voters reject Democratic ideology.
“Liberals are going to have trouble because the state is not with them,” he said.
Pearson said South Carolina voters shouldn’t expect Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to play a role in the 2014 gubernatorial race, when Haley formally announces her re-election bid this summer.
Before Tuesday, Sanford repeatedly mentioned the California congresswoman, even debating a life-size cardboard poster of her.
Instead of Pelosi, Haley will tout her willingness to fight another Democrat, President Barack Obama, and his policies. Said Pearson: “She will stand up and say, ‘This is not right for South Carolina.’ ”
Brown says S.C. Democrats need to be patient.
“We might not win two years from now, four years from now, 10 years from now,” he said. “We need to put down a foundation to win 10, 15 years out.
“We can’t get a quick fix.”