Before Tuesday, voters in S.C. Senate District 17 had opted seven times to send Wes Hayes to represent them in Columbia – for the past 25 years, after he was first elected to the Senate in a 1991 special election.
At times during that stretch, Hayes was re-elected by wide margins or ran unopposed. As recently as 2012, Hayes returned to Columbia with 74 percent of the vote.
But Hayes’ string of election victories came to an end Tuesday, when he narrowly lost the Republican primary to political newcomer Wes Climer, a 33-year-old former county GOP chairman who has been alive for nearly as long as Hayes, previously a member of the state House, has been a legislator.
Why the change? In politics, one night’s election results can seem sudden, but they can reflect shifts that have been percolating for years.
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Hayes may be the latest victim of an anti-incumbent wave that’s shaken up politics in recent years. Climer was endorsed by Gov. Nikki Haley, who clashed with several other senior Republican senators over her legislative agenda.
“I wouldn’t say Haley has that kind of impact here, but her political philosophy does,” said Rick Whisonant, political science professor at York Technical College. Whisonant characterizes that philosophy as a carryover from the tea party movement that had such an impact on the 2010 elections.
I think Climer’s the only one who could have done it.
Rick Whisonant, York Tech professor
Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University professor and director of the Winthrop Poll, thinks Haley’s endorsement was less consequential than the money and advertising that poured into the race on Climer’s behalf by the Haley-affiliated Great Day SC PAC and the Club for Growth.
“Those same ads were used in other races, but they were not as effective,” Huffmon said, “but here they fell on fertile ground.”
Climer said he regularly encountered frustrated voters leading up to his narrow victory in the primary. Climer won with 51 percent of the vote, over Hayes’ 48 percent.
“I must have knocked on thousands of doors, and what I heard were people frustrated with legislative failure, who want to pave roads, fix our schools and pass ethics laws,” Climer said. “It is part of a broad national trend of people who are dissatisfied with government that is incompetent and ineffective.”
More recently than the tea party movement, that trend became the wave of support for Donald Trump in February’s South Carolina presidential primary.
“The Trump vote was about an outsider bashing the insiders,” Huffmon said. “So they would be open to the same argument.”
In fast-growing River Hills, voters opted for Climer over Hayes by 357 votes to 129. New residents are more apt to be reflexively anti-incumbent.
Some of the precincts that supported Hayes on Tuesday were holdouts against Trump’s insurgent wave that carried all 46 South Carolina counties: Fewell Park, Northwestern and Rock Hill 5 preferred Marco Rubio, while Ebenezer, Friendship and Rock Hill 7 voted for Ted Cruz.
In that environment, even Hayes concedes long experience in government office can be more of a negative than a positive in voters’ eyes.
“It can be hindrance,” the senator said the day after the results came in. “You can debate whether or not it should be, but the perception is that it was time for a change.”
It didn’t help that the district’s demographics changed at the same time as politics did. As York County has grown in recent years, the voter rolls added many conservative-leaning residents who don’t have long-term knowledge of the longtime senator. In River Hills, one of the fastest-growing parts of the district along Lake Wylie, voters opted for Climer over Hayes by 357 to 129.
“It’s not so nice for me, but it’s a nice problem for the area to have,” Hayes said. “I take a lot of pride in our growth, but it is an issue in politics.”
Whisonant sees new voters without a longtime familiarity with local conditions as more apt to take a reflexively anti-incumbent position.
It’s no so nice for me, but it’s a nice problem for the area to have.
Sen. Wes Hayes, on the growth in Senate District 15
“They don’t really understand the culture of South Carolina politics, so they can pin Hayes as part of the establishment,” Whisonant said. “Hayes is not a liberal by any means, but he’s also not representative of where the Republican Party has gone in the last 10 years.”
Whereas Hayes was often a compromising figure in the Legislature, conservative voters today “are in no mood for compromise,” Whisonant said, and Climer was well-positioned to take advantage of that.
“It required somebody who had the inside track on the Republican Party and the conservative movement,” he said. “It’s not that anybody could run and beat Wes Hayes. In fact, I think Climer’s the only one who could have done it.”
The winning candidate said it was a positive, forward-looking vision that did more to carry the day than a negative voter mood.
“It would be a mistake to conclude this is all about frustration,” Climer said. “At the end of the day, people want their government to work, and we ran a hard campaign on fixing it.”