S.C. governor’s race off to fast pace

ashain@thestate.com November 9, 2013 

  • A year out, how other top S.C. elections are shaping up: U.S. Senate

    Incumbent Lindsey Graham is facing four challengers in the GOP primary – Lee Bright, Richard Cash, Bill Connor and Nancy Mace – who are trying to paint the Seneca Republican as a compromiser on conservative values. Graham has a huge money lead. Little-known Jay Stamper of Columbia, who has three felony convictions, is the only declared Democrat for Graham’s seat.

    In South Carolina’s other U.S. Senate race next year, Tim Scott, a North Charleston Republican appointed to the Senate last year by Gov. Nikki Haley after Jim DeMint resigned, has one announced Democratic challenger, Richland County Councilwoman Joyce Dickerson. But former Obama campaign adviser Rick Wade is weighing a Democratic run.

    Lieutenant governor

    Republican incumbent Glenn McConnell, a former state Senate leader elevated after Ken Ard’s resignation, is facing a primary challenge from Charleston developer Pat McKinney, who has been a Haley supporter. Some see McKinney’s candidacy as an attempt to link the offices four years before the governor and lieutenant governor start running on the same ticket. State Rep. Bakari Sellers of Bamberg is the only Democrat running so far.

    Education superintendent

    Incumbent Mick Zais has no GOP primary opponent, while state Rep. Mike Anthony and former Education Department staffer Montrio Belton are vying for the Democratic nomination. Superintendent was the last South Carolina statewide office held by a Democrat.

    Comptroller general

    Republican incumbent Richard Eckstrom could get a primary challenge as the state’s top accountant from Darlington County GOP officer Michael Luppe.

— Let the framing for the 2014 S.C. governor’s race begin.

The familiarity between the campaigns of Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen has led to a flurry of news releases and accusations a year before their rematch next November.

Sheheen is going to follow President Barack Obama’s failed federal health care program and raise taxes, Republicans preach.

Haley has not improved the state’s economy and, on her watch, hackers violated residents’ privacy with the massive theft of tax-return data, Democrats counter.

Democrats see vulnerability for the first-term Republican governor in recent polls, but Haley holds a 3-to-1 edge in cash on hand.

“This is war,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia.

Focusing on shortcomings

Sheheen, a Camden attorney, lost to Haley by 4.5 percentage points in 2010, when the governor’s seat opened after the end of Mark Sanford’s second term.

Now, Haley carries a three-year record into the early stage of the campaign.

The governor promotes her economic development successes with plant tours – she fired an assault rifle while visiting a Columbia arms maker this summer – and speeches about job growth, including expansions at major manufacturers such as BMW and Boeing.

“We’re excited about the opportunity to tell her story because it’s a great one,” said senior campaign adviser Tim Pearson, who was Haley’s 2010 campaign manager and former chief of staff in the governor’s office. “Things are going the way that they should go, and it’s because of her leadership.”

Sheheen has started touring the state, speaking about his plans to improve schools, businesses and infrastructure “to help that next generation of South Carolinians make sure we have an educated workforce,” campaign manager Andrew Whalen said.

But most of the chatter from the campaigns and state parties is about the opponent’s shortcomings.

Democrats see Haley, despite her job claims, as having done little to improve the day-to-day lives of South Carolinians and her administration as making major mistakes.

The most notable bungle is failing to protect people’s personal information when foreign hackers stole tax return information from the S.C. Department of Revenue last year, Democrats say.

Pearson says Haley has been upfront about how the state could have handled cyber security better and has made changes after the data breach. “The rhetoric he uses is grasping,” Pearson said of Sheheen. “Ultimately, we’ll be successful because the state’s been successful.”

Sheheen’s camp also continues to raise questions about Haley’s ethics, especially as she – like Sheheen – pushes for ethics reforms.

Incidents that Democrats cite include state Ethics Commission penalties paid by Haley’s campaign for filing incomplete contribution records and reimbursements her campaign had to make to the state for disallowed uses of state-owned planes and mileage for state-funded vehicles taken to campaign events.

“When it comes to Nikki Haley talking about ethics, that is the definition of the fox guarding the hen house,” Whalen said.

Accusations of hypocrisy

The governor’s campaign and the South Carolina GOP see Sheheen as an opportunistic lawyer with ties to Obama, who lost South Carolina by double digits in last year’s presidential election.

Sheheen’s willingness to take the three years of federal health care expansion that would have cost the state nothing is a gateway to tethering South Carolina to spend tens of millions in the future on a program with problems enrolling people, Republicans say. (Democrats said 320,000 South Carolinians could get health insurance with the expansion.)

“You can’t have a governor who’s just going to roll over for (Obama),” Pearson said. “It’s pretty clear that the president’s health care plan could be a disaster for South Carolina.”

Whalen said Sheheen has expressed concerns about the health care law, and efforts to tie the senator to Obama – including a recent Facebook posting by the state GOP that featured an edited photo of the pair standing together – are a distraction away from Haley’s record.

Republicans also have called out Sheheen for what they say is hypocrisy on social issues, such as when the pro-life candidate attended a Democratic fundraiser at the Columbia home of a lawyer on the board of a pro-choice group, and when he spoke to a Columbia gay pride rally though he opposes same-sex marriage.

Clyburn said the appearances only show Sheheen can work with people whose views differ from his.

“To me, Sheheen is as conservative as anybody else,” Clyburn said. “He’s just not reactionary, not radical.”

Haley’s backers also accuse Democrats in the General Assembly of delaying ethics reform and government restructuring bills – issues the governor and Sheheen both back – in an effort to deprive Haley of political wins. “If they hijack the legislative session for political purposes, then shame on them,” Pearson said.

‘What’s next for her’

Regardless of how the candidates frame themselves or their opponent, Haley holds one indisputable advantage: South Carolina’s Republican voters.

Among voters in the state, self-identifying Republicans outnumber Democrats by 7.4 percentage points – the 11th-largest gap in the nation, according to a Gallup poll.

Based on those Gallup findings and state Election Commission data, South Carolina Republicans have about 200,000 more registered voters than do Democrats, who have held the governor’s office just four of the past 26 years.

Haley also has a lot of cash to spend.

The governor had $3.2 million on hand at the end of September versus $1 million that Sheheen has raised over the past six months. The pair spent $8 million combined in 2010, with Sheheen holding a slight fundraising edge.

“Money is the not end-all, be-all,” Whalen said. “You need just enough to get your message out.”

Haley has spent portions of her first term raising money for her re-election bid, including recent trips to New York and Houston. Sheheen’s backers complain about how much of Haley’s contributions have come from out of state, where the governor has become a favorite in national Republican circles after a prime-time speaking slot at last year’s GOP convention.

“I think people get that she’s looking at what’s next for her,” Whalen said. He cited the launch of Haley’s re-election campaign in Greenville, which took place with a huge U.S. flag – not South Carolina’s – as the backdrop.

But Sheheen also has traveled out of state to raise money. Last month he went to New York – a sign that the challenger is casting a wider net to close the money gap. And the Democratic Governor’s Association is expected to aid Sheheen more than it did in 2010, news that Clyburn shared at last month’s Democratic rally in Orangeburg.

An association spokesman would not reveal how much it will spend to support Sheheen but called the race “a solid pick-up opportunity.”

‘Going to do just fine’

Talk of national support comes after recent polls that, according to Democrats, show Haley is vulnerable.

A Democratic poll had the pair statistically tied and a Republican poll had a higher percentage of likely voters disapproving Haley’s job performance than approving. Haley’s job approval rating continues to be below 50 percent, according to a Winthrop University poll released last month.

“That (voter) frustration is palpable,” Whalen said. “It comes from wages. It comes from wondering if they can afford to send their kids to college.”

Haley’s camp says it is not worried.

“The polls right now don’t really matter,” Pearson said. “What does matter is that she’s got a story to tell. … She’s going to do just fine.”

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