For more than 30 years, Rock Hill voters have chosen Wes Hayes to represent them in Columbia, first as a member of the House of Representatives and then, since 1991, as a senator in District 15.
In that time, Hayes rose to become one of the chamber’s senior Republicans, chairing the banking and insurance committee and being labeled the “dean of ethics reform” by his fellow senators. He won re-election to his York County seat six times in 20 years.
On Tuesday night, that came to an end, as Hayes was upset by 33-year-old financial adviser and former York County GOP chairman Wes Climer.
The race was decided by nearly 4 percentage points on Tuesday in one of the closest and most closely watched Senate races in the state. The primary winner will be running unopposed in the fall.
Watching unofficial results come in at his Rock Hill home on primary night, Climer said, “We think we know what the outcome will be,” but had not yet received an official call from Hayes as the results from the last outstanding precincts became known.
Speaking to supporters in the family kitchen, Climer promised, “We will make a difference in the quality of our government. We will fight for reform.”
Climer ran on a platform of reforming the Senate, blaming the General Assembly’s seeming inability to pass an ethics bill, measures to reform the Department of Transportation and repair the state’s road network, and other priorities on the Senate’s top leadership – and Hayes in particular. He’s called for term limits to get more fresh faces and fresh ideas into Columbia.
Climer’s challenge was stiffened by an endorsement from Gov. Nikki Haley, who also endorsed other GOP primary challengers to Senate leaders she blames for stifling her legislative agenda. The governor campaigned for Climer in Rock Hill a week ahead of the vote, calling Hayes “a nice man, a kind man,” who had lost his way in Columbia.
“He’s always voted with Hugh Leatherman (the Senate’s powerful president pro tempore), and with the Democrats,” she said. “He’s always done it because he’s nice and kind. But he forgot the only people he needs to be nice and kind to are you.”
But Hayes countered with endorsements of his own from Haley’s lieutenant governor, Henry McMaster, S.C. Education Superintendent Molly Spearman, and several of his Senate colleagues, who came to Rock Hill last week to issue their endorsements, echoing Hayes’ argument that he’d done a lot to advance the state’s and York County’s interests in his time in Columbia.
At this own gathering to watch the results come in Tuesday night, the incumbent stayed glued to his own computer in his office as results rolled in, hoping early returns from the western areas of York County could be flipped by results in Rock Hill.
Casting his ballot at Rock Hill’s Aldersgate United Methodist Church on Tuesday, voter Tommy Thompson agreed with the state’s top senators on Hayes’ contribution.
“Now is not the time to change our senior senator,” Thompson said. “We’re a very progressive county, and he now has a lot of leadership positions in the Senate.”
But voting at Laurel Creek’s Magnolia Room, Vance Houston spoke for most of the area’s voters when he said “It’s time to make a change.”
“(Hayes) talks about a whole lot of change in this and this,” Houston said. “But the people don’t see it.”
Reached late Tuesday, Hayes said, “I wish Wes Climer the best, and I will work with him in the transition to ensure York County will still be well-represented," he said. "We both want what's best for York County.”
Climer said he’d encountered his opponent outside a polling place at Northwestern High School earlier in the day.
“We had a nice moment of reflection, and I reiterated to him my heart-felt respect for him as a man and for the campaign he’s run,” Climer said.
Former Senate leader holds off challenger
Elsewhere in York County, a former Senate majority leader handily held off his own challenge, as Harvey Peeler of Gaffney defeated Spartanburg veterans advocate Kenny Price in the GOP primary.
Peeler’s victory will return him to the Senate for District 14, which represents all of Cherokee County and portions of Spartanburg, Union and York counties, including the town of Clover. He won’t, however, return to the Senate leadership post he gave up this spring, citing his need to focus on the primary challenge. That job now belongs to Edgefield Sen. Shane Massey.
Coleman in runoff
Winnsboro Democrat Creighton Coleman will need a runoff for another term against education advocate Mike Fanning of Great Falls. Fanning finished ahead in the York County precincts, which include the city of York and the south side of Rock Hill, but fell behind in Chester and Fairfield counties, while Coleman seemed to be just under the 50 percent needed to avoid a second vote.
The June 28 runoff winner will face Republican Mark Palmer of York in November.
A third candidate in the race, Morgan Bruce Reeves of Winnsboro, finished farther behind in third. The former NFL football player had previously run for governor twice as the candidate of the Green and United Citizens parties in 2010 and 2014.