S.C. POLITICS

SC governor’s race: Is it 2014 already?

ashain@thestate.comMay 27, 2013 

  • Gubernatorial cash A look at the bankrolls that Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen amassed in their 2010 governor’s race, and how much they have raised and have on hand for their expected 2014 rematch, as of March 31: 2010

    Haley: $3.96 million

    Sheheen: $4.03 million

    2014

    Haley

    Raised: $2.7 million

    On hand: $2 million

    Sheheen

    Raised: $27,562 (1)

    On hand: $110,655 (1)

    (1) All but $500 comes from Sheheen’s senatorial campaign SOURCE: S.C. Ethics Commission

It looks like the 2014 gubernatorial campaign is in full swing, 18 months ahead of time.

Consider what happened last Tuesday.

An hour before Republican Gov. Nikki Haley stepped before a microphone to discuss the ethics reform bill stalled in the Senate, the S.C. Democratic Party sent out a news release titled: “Nikki Haley All Talk on Ethics Reform.”

Twenty minutes later, the S.C. Republican Party countered with a release aimed at Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who has announced he will run again for governor against Republican Haley, entitled, “Why is Vince Sheheen afraid of ethics reform?”

Haley then held her news conference in State House lobby, followed — a few feet away — by a rebuttal from a Sheheen ally.

Political races usually wait until the final six to eight weeks before a general election to heat up.

Not this one.

The 2014 governor’s contest is unique in S.C. political history, featuring a rematch of candidates from different parties vying in a statewide race.

Haley, 41, beat Sheheen by less than 5 percentage points in 2010 after a bloody GOP primary. This time, however, neither candidate is expected to face serious — if any — primary opposition this time around.

Unlike Sheheen, Haley has not formally announced she will run again, though she has opened a campaign office, and unveiled grassroots and finance committees. She is expected to make her re-election bid official this summer.

Since Sheheen, 42, announced seven weeks ago that he would run again, the S.C. GOP party has issued at least eight news releases about the Camden lawyer, while a pro-Haley political group has spent $300,000 in television ads questioning the senator’s support of Medicaid expansion.

During the same time, state Democrats have issued more than a dozen press releases, a YouTube ad and held at least two news conferences, questioning Haley’s ethics and management of the hacking incident at the state Revenue Department.

Democrats also attacked a Haley re-election campaign volunteer whom they said had ties to a white nationalist group. The volunteer resigned Sunday at the request of the Haley campaign.

“We’re in a constant political cycle,” said Tim Pearson, the onetime chief of staff to Gov. Haley who managed her 2010 campaign and now is her political advisor. “You would think an elected official would have some grace period.”

Character matters

The two parties and candidates really never stopped going at each other after the 2010 election ended.

Republicans’ common refrain, even before Sheheen announced his second bid, was that the state senator from Camden never stopped running for governor.

Sheheen and his allies “have turned the Senate into a campaign platform and a place to attack the governor,” Pearson said.

Democrats have produced more than 35 YouTube videos critical of Haley, state party executive director Amanda Loveday said. “We have not let her go, since Day 1, with any mistake she’s made.”

Haley’s campaign plans to tout her job-creation record and the state’s falling unemployment rate as well as her efforts to win ethics reform, Pearson said.

But Democrats are zeroing in on the Lexington Republican’s ethics record, which includes being cleared of accusations last year that she used her office for personal gain while she was a state representative.

The average voter does not care much about ethics reform bills dealing with rules on lobbyists and legislators’ financial disclosures, Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said. “But character does” matter, he added.

Republicans struck out at Sheheen last week with a reminder that his law firm has made money suing the state. Sheheen’s campaign said in 2010 that the cases represented a small portion of the firm’s business.

Meanwhile, Democrats this month accused Haley of flying a campaign-paid videographer on state planes to official state events. An attorney with the state Ethics Commission said the practice is allowed if the videographer is working on state business.

Pearson defends Haley’s ethics record, saying she long has a backed stronger ethics measures, including sponsoring a bill to require on-the-record voting when she was in the House and calling for sweeping reforms this year.

“There is nothing that (Democrats) have not impugned her motives for since she has been office,” Pearson said.

Laying groundwork

The would-be opponents have been crafting their messages, including ethics and jobs. And the messages are not expected to change significantly unless news breaks, political experts said.

“Both sides are laying the psychological groundwork for the campaign ahead,” Huffmon said. Haley is backing her claim as the “jobs governor” by appearing at business openings, Huffmon said.

“She’s there to show, ‘My policies are working,’ ” he said.

Sheheen released a self-published book in March, filled with economic and social-welfare policies that he thinks could strengthen the state. But, for now, Sheheen says he is concentrating on his duties as a state senator until the legislative session ends next month.

“Realistically, most voters are not concerned about the governor’s race, and they are hoping that we can actually accomplish things in state government,” he said. “They will tune into the governor’s race later on, when it’s closer to the election.”

That hasn’t stopped Republicans from targeting Sheheen.

The senator gets GOP attention because he has — and will again — run for statewide office, S.C. GOP executive director Alex Stroman said. “He’s their knight in shining armor.”

Sending out attack messages “keeps the lines to party activists charged,” Winthrop’s Huffmon said. “They require constant tending, so they are ready to deploy.”

That advocacy also helps make sure people come out for fundraisers, he said. “Otherwise they’re not going to turn out.”

Sheheen is facing a deficit in the wallet.

Haley, aided by out-of-state fundraisers, has $2 million in her campaign account and can count on an undisclosed amount in additional financial support from a pro-Haley political committee.

Sheheen has $110,000 in his Senate campaign account that he could transfer over to a governor’s race.

“He’s got to match that big bankroll she’s got,” retired Francis Marion University political scientist Neal Thigpen said.

But 18 months of bickering between the candidates and parties could lead to voter fatigue when the election enters the homestretch next fall, some warn.

“It could wind up boring them,” Thigpen said of voters. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they are yawning by the end of things.”

USC political scientist Robert Oldendick said he expects the rhetoric to ease this summer, once the legislative session now underway at the State House ends.

“They’ll take one or two more swipes at each other, and then lay low.”

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