Sanford lacks GOP allies but fights 'lame duck' label

COLUMBIA -- So much for Gov. Mark Sanford's much-rumored "hit list" of Republican state legislators whom the second-term governor supposedly was plotting to defeat in this June's primaries.

Instead, welcome to the final two years of the my-way-or-the-highway governor's tenure in office.

Supporters insist Sanford is not a lame duck. They say the Republican governor and his allies still have a chance to reshape public policy by electing enough Sanford Republicans to the Legislature to uphold his vetoes over the next two years.

However, critics note the roster of candidates needed to give Sanford and conservative political groups more leverage in the Legislature did not materialize by the time filing closed for local and state offices last week.

That makes it less likely Sanford will have enough allies in the Legislature to sustain his vetoes as he speeds toward the halfway mark in his final term in office -- the point where opponents will start viewing Sanford as a lame duck to be endured or ignored.

Sanford insists he was not seeking out Republican candidates to run for the Legislature against GOP incumbents who have not toed the line sufficiently on the governor's agenda.

But Republican legislators who felt targeted by Sanford, a fellow Republican, disagree. They say the governor failed to recruit a slate of pro-Sanford candidates. Adept at raising money and delivering his message on television, Sanford has shown little enthusiasm for the retail politics that matter in Statehouse elections, his GOP critics say.

"They really haven't done all that well to get out in the provinces to dredge these people up," Neal Thigpen, a political scientist at Francis Marion University, said of Sanford and his allies.

Sanford has twice easily won election. But the Lowcountry Republican has been unable to translate those election results into passing his agenda. Instead, there has been a running, six-year-long battle between Republican Sanford and the Republican-controlled Legislature, especially about spending.

But Sanford and his allies are unfazed.

They say they see a growing trend of legislative support for the governor's agenda.

Support for that agenda is slowly accruing in both the state House and Senate, Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer contends. For example, the governor advocated income tax cuts, workers' compensation reform and expanding charter schools, all of which passed the Legislature last year, Sawyer says.

Sawyer said Sanford has not pursued ousting GOP legislators who disagree with him.

"He is not actively recruiting candidates," Sawyer said of Sanford.

Instead, Sawyer said some GOP lawmakers have been harboring a "paranoid delusional theory about a 'hit list.'"

Said Sawyer: "The decision he (Sanford) has made is to raise awareness of the issues, rather than actively recruiting" opponents for Republican legislators.

Mixed results

In past elections, third-party groups aligned with Sanford's agenda, such as the S.C. Club for Growth and South Carolinians for Responsible Government, which supports giving tax credits to parents to pay for private schooling, have had mixed results in electing candidates to the Legislature.

In 2006, two Responsible Government-supported candidates defeated State House incumbents. However, other Responsible Government-backed candidates failed.

The third-party groups tout themselves as having grass-roots constituencies but have been criticized for being funded by wealthy out-of-state interests.

S.C. voters are turned off by the outsiders, said Terry Sullivan, a Republican political consultant representing a number of GOP incumbents.

"That is what happens when you pretend to be a grass-roots organization but are really just a front group for out-of-state people," Sullivan said.

Like Thigpen, Sullivan said the pro-Sanford groups do not have the political network needed to recruit viable candidates to oppose GOP incumbents.

Rank-and-file Republicans "haven't seen these folks calling them RINOs" -- an acronym for "Republican in name only" -- that pro-Sanford groups use to label GOP legislators they deem insufficiently supportive of the governor "at their precinct meetings," Sullivan said.

Out of touch?

Sanford also has not done much to discourage beliefs he's out of touch with legislators, occasionally muffing the names of even his allies in the House, including Reps. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland, and Mick Mulvaney, R-Lancaster.

Two years ago, during budget debate on the House floor, state Rep. Marty Coates, R-Florence, proposed amendments stripping out a number of local projects from the budget.

Coates was accused of doing Sanford's work. Coates responded that Sanford did not even know his name nor that of anyone else in the Florence County Republican Party, drawing cheers from House lawmakers.

Earlier this year, a number of House lawmakers met with Sanford to discuss making cuts in the House's proposed budget for the state. Sanford asked them to cut some items but, legislators groused, would not list specifics.

Sawyer disputes that account, saying the governor suggested a handful of changes, including cutting raises for state agency heads.

Sawyer said the governor and his staff frequently meet with lawmakers about issues.

But lawmakers accuse Sanford of not working for his proposals, neglecting the behind-the-scenes work.

"You need to do missionary work, and I don't know if he understands the concept," said state Rep. Skipper Perry, R-Aiken. "You can't do it by intimidation."

Opportunity still?

Perry, one of several lawmakers challenged in the past by South Carolinians for Responsible Government, has said he will not seek re-election this year but will retire instead.

Sanford's allies see an opportunity to change the debate in Perry's decision and that of 21 state representatives who have said they will not seek re-election. That's 13 percent of the 170-member General Assembly.

"Some of those (retirements) are real victories" for Sanford and his allies, said Dave Woodard, a Clemson University political scientist.

Woodard thinks many of the legislators decided to retire because they feared opposition from Sanford and his allies.

Their goal now said Matt Moore, executive director of the S.C. Club for Growth is to elect a core group of lawmakers who will vote to sustain Sanford's vetoes over the next year.

Unable to pass his agenda, Sanford has sought to change state policy over the past six years by issuing hundreds of vetoes, which the Legislature routinely overrides.

"We think it's a watershed election in the state," said Moore, adding the number of lawmakers retiring gives Sanford and his allies a chance to reshape the Legislature and public policy.

But to get there this year -- the last election of Sanford's tenure -- will require work.

The governor needs 43 of 124 House votes or 16 of 46 Senate votes to ensure that one of his vetoes will not be overturned.

In the House, 59 candidates are unopposed, while 27 senators are unopposed.

That means that candidates agreeing with the S.C. Club for Growth, South Carolinians for Responsible Government or Sanford need to win 30 of the remaining 45 House races or 10 of the 13 remaining Senate races held by Republicans and Democrats to give Sanford enough legislative votes to uphold his vetoes.

House Republicans were preparing for 20 races featuring GOP challengers funded by South Carolinians for Responsible Government. But only four materialized. Ten lawmakers rumored to be targets of Sanford's "hit list" ended up unopposed.

Similarly, GOP state senators had raised tens of thousands of dollars to fend off Sanford-allied challengers.

Later this month, those legislators will get the first confirmation as to whether Sanford's allies are behind any GOP primary challengers. That's when candidates begin filing financial reports, including any contributions from the S.C. Club for Growth, South Carolinians for Responsible Growth and other third-party groups.