After losing disastrously earlier this month, forfeiting every statewide office and one of only two congressional seats they held, S.C. Democrats are in a death spiral.
People inside and out of Democratic circles are questioning whether Democrats have a future in the Palmetto State. Is there any chance of them winning big races in the future like the governor's office? Is it possible for them to reverse a more than decade-long trend of dwindling power in the State House where Republican majorities rule both the House and Senate?
Short answer: the odds are not good.
An analysis of how South Carolina voted in this month's gubernatorial race and the three previous races show:
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S.C. counties where Democrats run strongest have fewer voters and are growing at a slower rate than Republican-leaning counties. And even within those Democratic-leaning counties, Democratic victory margins are narrowing.
Conversely, the state's Republican-leaning counties are increasing the number of voters at a faster clip than their Democratic counterparts. And within those GOP-leaning counties, Republican victory margins are increasing.
Republicans rule the Upstate as well as populous Lexington County in the Midlands. Democrats need to pick up votes along the coast. But an analysis of general election results from 1998 to 2010 shows Democrats are losing ground along the coast, losing Beaufort County every election and Berkeley, Dorchester, Georgetown and Horry counties every election but in 1998, a strange, mash-up election involving a weak Republican incumbent Gov. David Beasley, a popular Democratic push for a state lottery and flush coffers for the Democratic nominee Jim Hodges.
But some say it's too early to sing a dirge for the Democrats.
"The death of the party has been greatly exaggerated," said Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon. "Democrats are in a position that is entirely new and they have to evolve in order to be viable."
Can it be reversed?
The 20 Democratic strongholds - defined as counties that have voted for the Democratic nominee in the governor's race in the past four cycles - are mostly small, rural counties, including Bamberg, Dillon, Jasper and McCormick.
Between the 1998 and 2010 election cycles, these counties saw a 14 percent increase in total number of voters casting ballots in the governor's race and a nearly 9 percent increase in the Democratic victory margin.
That doesn't hold a candle to the 10 counties that always voted for the Republican nominee over the same time period. They saw a nearly 27 percent increase in the number of voters and a whopping 157 percent increase in the GOP victory margin. These solid GOP counties include retiree destinations, including Beaufort and Greenville, and bedroom communities like York.
Yes, the situation looks dire, says Phil Noble, president of the S.C. New Democrats, a reform group started by former and U.S. Secretary of Education Dick Riley. But, he contends, the game isn't over for the state's Democrats if they reinvent themselves.
"Democrats can absolutely win in this state," he said. "It's all predicated on if we're willing to fundamentally change the game."
Big picture, Noble said Democrats must define who they are and what they stand for to attract new voters.
Noble said he will use his website in coming months to encourage discussion and debate among the state's Democrats to help forge a new identity.
He personally thinks public education should be the Democrats' defining issue. The state's superintendent of education has been, in recent years, the one statewide position where even Republican voters cast ballots for the Democratic nominee.
"We could be the party that guarantees that every kid who makes the grades, stays out of trouble and does community service, goes to college," Noble said.
Screaming it out
Democratic strategist Lachlan McIntosh smelled trouble when he saw a poll in early 2010 that showed a sizable chunk of voters did not know Republicans control state government in South Carolina.
"So you have all of these voters, mad at the status quo, but not understanding the status quo (at the state level) is the Republican Party," he said. "Not understanding that to bring about change, you had to vote Democratic."
McIntosh and Democratic politicos are all in agreement their party, for many years now, has done a dismal job at pointing out Republicans are in charge and screaming about their failures to the media and voters.
Republicans took control of the S.C. House in 1994, followed by the state Senate in 2001. A Republican has been elected governor every four years, with one exception, since 1987.
Pointing out GOP shortcomings is easer said than done, said Carol Fowler, chairwoman of the S.C. Democratic Party.
South Carolina's poulation growth over the past two decades has centered mostly along the coast and in the Upstate, although Lexington County consistently has been one of the state's fastest-growing counties.
Those migrants often are older, white and well educated, fitting demographics that lean Republican, Huffmon said.
Fowler thinks there is potential for Democrats to pick up votes along the coast by refining their message.
"We have an opportunity to learn about these new residents, what they think of South Carolina and what they want to happen in this state," Fowler said.
One point of Democratic pride is Charleston, which twice voted for native son and current Republican Gov. Mark Sanford, but went for Democrat Vincent Sheheen and down-ticket Democrats in this month's election.
Others, including former state party chairman Dick Harpootlian who helped elect Hodges, say Democrats must shrink their sights.
Leroy Chapman Jr. contributed.