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First Congressional District leads list of races to watch in South Carolina

It is an even numbered year and Labor Day has come and gone, which means the political season is upon us in South Carolina and the Lowcountry.

Nationally, with President Trump’s numbers buried deep in the proverbial toilet, it looks like a big year for Democrats as they are favored to re-take the United States House. Thanks to the luck of the draw, Democrats are defending significantly more of their Senate seats, which may prevent the so-called “blue wave” from wrestling control of the upper body from Mitch McConnell and his GOP colleagues — but that too could be in question should the national environment continue in its current direction.

Given that Democrats are expected to do so well nationally, could this finally be the year South Carolina Democrats make a break through and become a competitive party again? Make no mistake about it: the Palmetto State is more Republican today than it was 12 years ago, the last time Democrats won a statewide race. Although many cities and surrounding suburbs are trending blue, the rural counties are now nearly completely racially polarized when it comes to party affiliation. For Democrats to win here, their old urban and rural coalition of yesteryear will not carry them past 40 percent. They must make big strides with college educated white voters in places like Charleston, Columbia, Greenville, Rock Hill and Beaufort. Young voters, who nearly always sit out non-presidential elections, will need to vote in record numbers. And as always, Democrats will need huge turnout numbers from African-American voters who make up around 30 percent of the state’s electorate. African-American turnout here has been slipping in recent elections without former President Obama on the ticket.

State Rep. James Smith and his running mate, State Rep. Many Powers-Norwell, are the Democratic nominee for governor and lieutenant governor after handily disposing weak primary challenges. They’ll face incumbent Republican Governor Henry McMaster and his running mate, Pamela Evette. McMaster, who was elected lieutenant governor in 2014, became governor after Nikki Haley accepted her position as UN ambassador in the Trump administration. McMaster survived spirited challenges in the Republican Primary to win the nomination, but it took a runoff. McMaster, 71, who has been running for political offices since 1986, seemed nowhere near the top of his game during the process.

Current polling has this race in single digits, suggesting a close race. Democratic voters do appear more energized, but they’ll need to be. They are outnumbered by a lot.

Smith, who earned a purple heart serving in Afghanistan, has a strong résumé and compelling story. But he also has a voting record of more than 20 years serving in the State House while representing a liberal Columbia district. As the head of the ticket, Smith is responsible for raising the funds to communicate over the airwaves not only for his own campaign, but also for raising the money for the state Democratic Party’s get out the vote effort. This combined effort would require somewhere in the neighborhood of a $5 million price tag to be effective. Many observers question Smith’s commitment and ability to building the kind of organization necessary to do this. So far, the Democratic Governors Association (DGA), which could potentially contribute a couple million to the cause, has chosen not to invest in this race. Smith is currently on campaign manager number four and recently caused a brief stir when he attempted to make himself the nominee of the Green and Libertarian Parties, an effort he has since abandoned.

Still, McMaster’s weakness and President Trump’s unpopularity give Smith and Democrats hope. Wave elections can change the rules and the DGA still has lots of time and opportunities to spend here.

The other statewide race to watch is for attorney general. Several of Alan Wilson’s key associates and advisors have plead guilty and are cooperating with investigators. Wilson’s Republican primary opponents capitalized on reported ethical issues and, even though they were underfunded and unknown, forced Wilson into a runoff. The Democratic nominee is Charleston attorney Constance Anastopoulo. Anastopoulo has the personal ability to spend serious money on this race is she so chooses.

Democrats failed to recruit candidates who can realistically compete with their GOP competitors in the other statewide races.

On paper, in the perfect circumstances, Democrats could threaten Republican incumbents in three of the state’s seven Congressional districts. Those districts are the seventh, the fifth and the first. Democrats failed to nominate quality candidates in the seventh and the fifth and have essentially forfeited those opportunities.

The first district, currently represented by Mark Sanford, is a totally different story and gives the Democrats the best opportunity in the state to pull off an upset. The first is a solidly red district, and takes in craftily drawn sections of Charleston, Dorchester, Berkeley, Colleton and Beaufort Counties, But it’s a different type of red. It’s a Mitt Romney and John McCain type of red. Voters are well educated, and many are well off financially.

Earning 50 percent of the vote in the Republican Primary, Summerville State Rep. Katie Arrington shocked the nation by defeating Sanford. Sanford, who had never totally recovered from the Appalachian Trial scandal of years ago, also angered Trump and his supporters for having the audacity to question the president’s constant divisive and demagogic ways. Trump endorsed Arrington the day of the primary in a tweet that many see as the deciding factor in the race. Arrington spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV and radio cheerleading for Trump and promising her forever loyalty to his agenda and slammed Sanford for being too independent and critical of the president.

Arrington was able to thread the needle just enough to win the primary. But in doing so, and despite declaring herself congresswoman-elect on primary night, she’s created a major problem for her chances in November.

The Democrats have a nominee named Joe Cunningham. Cunningham is a young attorney and new father who has never run for political office before. He is campaigning as a centrist reformer who isn’t taking PAC contributions and is term limiting himself. In one his first statements as a candidate, Cunningham announced he will not vote for Nancy Pelosi for the speaker should Democrats win control, insisting instead that both parties need new leaders. In the early stages of the campaign, he has made banning drilling off the South Carolina coast a feature issue which has earned him the endorsements of local Republican officials. Arrington has taken conflicting positions, one in the primary and one in the general, on drilling which has brought her political sincerely into question by voters who are fed up with politics as usual.

Cunningham has also proven an excellent fundraiser, despite swearing off those special interest PAC contributions. He will be the best funded Democrat ever to run for the first district. Recently, the Democratic Congressional Committee put the district on their “red to blue list,” which all but ensures the race will be targeted as fall nears. Longtime Lowcountry political observers cannot help but notice the similarities to Cunningham and of a young reform-minded Mark Sanford in the mid 1990s.

Private polling reinforces optimism for Cunningham’s chances. Arrington’s lead is miniscule, and her public displays of total Trump loyalty give area voters serious heartburn. Despite the district’s Republican leanings, Trump is underwater here and still sinking. Arrington has little room to grow and voters love Cunningham’s profile.

If Arrington wins, its only because of the “R” by her name. She’s most certainly a poor choice for this type of district.

In Charleston County, a place James Smith and Joe Cunningham are expected to carry, Democrats will attempt to continue their string of countywide courthouse victories. In the open register of deeds race, Democrat Michael Miller will take on Republican Tom Hartnett (son of the former congressman). Should Smith and Cunningham win the county as predicted, Miller should be expected to ride those coattails to a victory of his own. The race for probate judge features longtime Republican incumbent Irv Condon against Democrat and retired Magistrate Judge Stephanie Ganaway-Pasley who won a difficult and contentious Democratic primary. That, combined with Condon’s long service, make this race a tossup.

Depending on the size or lack thereof, of the blue wave, other local races could soon become more prominent as Democrats, in the Charleston area, were quite successful in candidate recruitment.

Lachlan McIntosh is a political consultant based in Charleston. He consults for Democratic and independent candidates throughout the United States. He is a former executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party and aid to Governor Jim Hodges.

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