Two nationally known but weakened Republicans are raising Democratic hopes in the ruby-red Republican stronghold of South Carolina.
A Southern state in which the GOP controls the state Legislature, all nine statewide offices, both U.S. Senate seats, and six out of seven House seats is an unlikely Democratic beachhead. And President Obama lost South Carolina by 11 points in November.
But Democrats see Gov. Nikki Haley, with approval ratings in the low 40s, as one of their top targets in 2014. An automated poll by a Democratic firm of the 1st Congressional District also found that ex-Gov. Mark Sanford, the likely winner of Tuesday’s Republican primary runoff, slightly trailing Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert. An internal campaign poll for Colbert Busch last week had her slightly ahead of Sanford, who became a national punch line in 2009 after he disappeared from public view for several days and then admitted to an affair with a woman from Argentina.
“There’s a feeling that we’re ready for change, and it’s energizing Democrats,” said Kristin Sosanie, spokeswoman for the South Carolina Democratic Party. “The common thread is that these Republicans aren’t looking at what’s in the best interest of South Carolina.”
The special House election to replace Tim Scott, whom Haley appointed to fill the Senate seat vacated by Jim DeMint, is May 7. The district leans Republican, but Sanford is dogged by the scandal that led to his resignation in 2009.
“When Democrats look at the district, they see the independent flavor of Charleston County where there’s little influence from the Religious Right, but the three other counties in the district are much more problematic for them,” said Barry Wynn, former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. “If Sanford wins [Tuesday], he’s probably the favorite, but only a slight favorite.”
Republican Party Chairman Chad Connelly argued that Colbert Busch’s support for labor unions would sink her in the right-to-work-state. As for Democrats eyeing pickup opportunities in that district and the Governor’s Mansion, he quipped, “Democrats believe in the tooth fairy and Easter bunny, too.”
Despite her waning popularity at home, Haley is considered a rising star in her party. As the first woman and Indian-American governor of South Carolina, she is an important symbol of Republican efforts to broaden the party's appeal to a rapidly diversifying electorate. The GOP is unlikely to let her go down without a fight.
Still, Democratic Party leaders rank her 2014 reelection campaign in their top gubernatorial tier--which also includes Rick Scott of Florida, Rick Snyder of Michigan, and John Kasich of Ohio. Haley is facing a potential rematch against Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, whom she defeated by only 5 percentage points in the tea-party-fueled Republican wave of 2010.
Among the reasons Democrats see Haley as vulnerable: Unemployment in the state runs higher than the national rate (most recently, it was 8.6 percent in February). State officials have been embarrassed by a massive security breach in the state Department of Revenue last year that allowed hackers to swipe financial information from millions of residents. More recently, Haley rejected the federal Medicaid expansion offered by President Obama’s health care law, which a University of South Carolina study said would mean an estimated $11.2 billion in federal aid and 44,000 new jobs.
The Democratic line of attack is clear: portraying Haley an incompetent, uncompromising ideologue.
“This is going to be a big race--Republicans have a lot invested in her--but the job performance has been so poor that she’s incredibly vulnerable, no matter what her national profile is,” said Danny Kanner, spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association
Sheheen has not yet launched a campaign but is already getting plugged. In a speech in South Carolina last month, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, finance chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, dropped Sheheen’s name not once but twice. The former city prosecutor is currently on a statewide tour to promote his new book, The Right Way: Getting the Palmetto State Back On Track.
Haley's chief bragging rights involved the newly built Boeing plant in North Charleston, which employs 6,000 people. The airplane-manufacturing plant was the subject of a high-profile union dispute that allowed the governor to rally antilabor conservatives in the state.
“Boeing is a good story for her that she can play up, and every time the plant spawns another business she can go down there and take credit,” said Wynn, who was named recently to Haley’s fundraising committee. “I tend to think she may be a stronger incumbent than what people believe.”