Attacks in SC GOP education superintendent race intensify ahead of Tuesday runoff

·12 min read

The Republican state superintendent race between Kathy Maness and Ellen Weaver has grown increasingly testy in recent weeks, as the leading candidates to replace outgoing schools chief Molly Spearman have ramped up the personal attacks ahead of Tuesday’s primary runoff.

Like many GOP races in South Carolina and across the country this election cycle, the race pits a status quo candidate — Maness has been endorsed by Spearman — against a hard-line opponent who has questioned her Republican bonafides.

As Weaver put it in her opening statement during a recent debate: “We have a clear choice between a proven America-first conservative and my opponent, whose face could be on Wikipedia next to Republican in Name Only.”

Maness, a Lexington town councilwoman who leads South Carolina’s largest teachers advocacy group, has countered Weaver’s claims about her supposed “liberal record” by pointing to her opponent’s lack of academic credentials.

Weaver, the president and CEO of a conservative think tank, doesn’t have an advanced degree and therefore isn’t statutorily qualified to hold office. She recently enrolled in an online master’s program and has vowed to earn her degree by October in order to be fully qualified by the general election.

The runoff candidates finished atop a crowded Republican field in their party’s primary earlier this month, but neither cleared the 50% threshold necessary to win outright. Maness picked up nearly 25,000 more votes than Weaver to finish with 30.6% of the vote to Weaver’s 23.3%.

Since the primary, Weaver has locked up the endorsement of third-place finisher Travis Bedson, a North Charleston businessman, and Maness has been endorsed by Greenville County school board member Lynda Leventis-Wells, who finished sixth.

The winner of Tuesday’s runoff will face Democrat Lisa Ellis in November.

Ellis, a Blythewood High School teacher and student activities director who won the Democratic primary outright, is best known for founding SC for Ed, a grassroots teachers group that in 2019 organized a march at the State House to demand better pay and working conditions for teachers.

The GOP race fits the mold of other recent Republican contests between candidates from the traditional and more populist factions of the party, said Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at the College of Charleston.

While fealty to former President Donald Trump hasn’t been an issue in the schools chief race, the discourse over parents’ rights that has suffused national Republican politics since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic has largely overshadowed local education issues.

Discussion of topics such as education funding, learning loss and the growing student mental health crisis has taken a backseat to fears that liberal teachers are indoctrinating students and so-called critical race theory — a catch-all phrase that has broadly come to mean any classroom instruction, generally dealing with race, class, gender or sexuality, that one might find inappropriate — is creeping into South Carolina classrooms.

“Over the last decade or so, and since the Trump administration, local and state elections have become more nationalized,” Knotts said. “Even issues that politicians don’t have in their purview, they’ll end up talking about these big national issues that are playing out every night on Fox News, MSNBC and CNN.”

That’s certainly been true of the Republican superintendent race, where Weaver has pledged to defend parents’ rights and stop “woke indoctrination,” while repeatedly trying to connect Maness to national Democratic bogeymen.

Maness said she’d rather be talking about the “real things” affecting education in South Carolina, but has tacked to the right since coming under fire from her opponent.

In recent media appearances, she’s doubled down on her “hard Republican” voting record and even called out Weaver for voting in the 2016 Democratic primary. (Weaver said she voted in that election for Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott). Maness’ campaign website emphasizes her positions on national Republican issues like parental rights, critical race theory and school choice, even though she doesn’t lead with those issues when stumping.

“I want to get out there and talk about the great things I can do for public education,” Maness said Friday. “But instead I have to spend my time responding to (Weaver’s) lies and misinformation.”

In response, the Weaver campaign said Maness’ call for civility during a recent debate was disingenuous and accused her of misleading voters in new ads focused on Weaver’s lack of qualifications.

“She says one thing to Republican primary voters in public and then goes and does the opposite behind their backs,” Weaver’s campaign manager Ryan Gillespie said.

Who is Ellen Weaver?

Weaver, 43, is a Greenville native who runs the Palmetto Promise Institute, a conservative think tank founded by her former boss U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint.

She spent the first 12 years of her career working as an aide to DeMint, a leading figure in the Tea Party movement, before moving on to lead his think tank, which advocates at the State House in support of conservative legislation.

Since 2018, Weaver, who now lives in Columbia, has served on the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee, the body charged with approving academic content standards and assessments in K-12 public schools.

She’s racked up dozens of endorsements from prominent Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, and has raised more outside money than all other candidates in the race combined, according to the latest pre-election filings.

A significant share of her campaign cash has come from wealthy conservative philanthropists and school choice advocates who, like Weaver, support publicly funding private education options for students whose needs are not being met by public schools.

Weaver has cast herself as a bold reformer who would shake up the education status quo in South Carolina by standing up against a broken bureaucratic system that for years has marginalized parents’ voices.

“This election is the most important election in South Carolina this year,” she said in a recent interview with Lexington real estate agent and parents’ rights activist Stephanie Berquist. “We saw what happened to our schools during COVID and we just can’t ever allow anything like that to happen again.”

In recent weeks, Weaver has done interviews with activists like Berquist, an outspoken critic of mask mandates and school diversity initiatives, and Corey Allen, a Lowcountry podcast host and provocateur who was present at last year’s Jan. 6 Capitol riot and in 2020 helped lead a Charleston Tea Party march that was joined by members of the Proud Boys, a far right-wing extremist group.

She has thus far declined multiple requests to speak with The State, choosing instead to issue statements through her campaign manager. Gillespie, who runs Weaver’s campaign, declined to respond to a list of questions The State emailed him for this article, claiming they had been written by the Maness campaign for use in a “hit piece” against his candidate.

In recent years, more and more Republican candidates are bypassing the mainstream media to speak directly with “real” people, who often provide a friendlier audience, said Knotts, the College of Charleston political scientist.

“Particularly on the far right, the mainstream media is the enemy,” he said, adding that speaking with supporters allows candidates to control the narrative and get their message in front of other like-minded people who consume that sort of media.

Among the things Weaver’s campaign has declined to answer are questions about her pursuit of an online master’s degree in educational leadership from Bob Jones University.

The state Republican Party certified Weaver’s candidacy and allowed her to remain on the ballot based on her pledge that she would satisfy the education requirement South Carolina lawmakers established four years ago for the state’s top schools official.

She has said publicly she expects to wrap up her master’s program by October, but hasn’t explained inconsistencies about her apparent mid-session registration or proposed completion of a capstone research project that requires students to be teaching in a traditional K-12 classroom during the semester they complete it.

As long as Weaver is awarded her master’s degree by Election Day, she should be in the clear legally to hold the office, if elected, State Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said.

Attorney General Alan Wilson recently issued a legal opinion advising that, in the absence of a contested or protested race, the election commission need not determine whether a certified candidate is qualified for the office they seek.

That means if Weaver were to be elected without having earned an advanced degree, an interested party, such as an opponent, would need to bring a legal challenge for the case to be heard and her qualifications to be vetted.

Who is Kathy Maness?

Maness, 60, is a former third grade teacher in Lancaster County and longtime executive director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association.

She’s served on the Lexington town council since 2004, and in 2020 became the first South Carolinian elected president of the National League of Cities, an advocacy group that represents the interests of municipalities across the country.

In her role as head of the state’s largest teachers organization, she’s worked closely with the South Carolina General Assembly and multiple state superintendents.

Maness, who was endorsed by Spearman and has a strong base of educator support, is generally seen as being in the same mold as the current schools chief.

Her top priorities are recruiting and retaining more teachers, enhancing school safety and reducing paperwork for teachers and testing requirements for students.

In recent months, Maness has stated her opposition to school mask and COVID-19 vaccine mandates and expressed support for school choice options, including tax credit programs that allow individuals to deduct the cost of private school tuition from state income tax returns.

Maness’ past advocacy on behalf of public school teachers and years spent serving on the Lexington town council have, however, left a long public record that Weaver has used to attack her.

For example, Maness, speaking for the Palmetto State Teachers Association, has historically opposed school vouchers and private school tuition tax credits, saying that “taking public money for private schools is something we cannot support,” according to a 2004 Charleston Post and Courier article.

In 2020, Maness voted to impose a mask mandate in the town of Lexington and pushed back against Gov. Henry McMaster’s call for all schools to offer an in-person learning option that fall.

Last year, she spoke at a press conference with other educators and medical professionals urging state lawmakers to repeal a one-year budget measure that prohibited school districts from requiring masks.

“The General Assembly is not a super school board,” Maness said at the time, decrying that masks had become a political issue. “They need to leave that decision to local elected officials who know what’s best for their community so that our students can stay in the classroom, so they can continue to learn and our teachers can teach.”

Speaking Friday, Maness said she never supported mask mandates in schools, but said local officials, rather than state lawmakers, should be the ones to make that call. She said she supported a mask mandate in Lexington after local health experts, including the CEO of Lexington Medical Center, spoke to municipal leaders about getting the spread of the virus under control.

“We did it based on what the experts were saying to us at the time, early in the pandemic, when Lexington County was losing so many people,” Maness said.

Television ads created by Weaver’s campaign and two millionaire-funded political action committees that support her have knocked Maness’ “liberal” record on masks, school closings and school choice, and connected her to President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

One of Weaver’s ads, which claims radical liberals are rallying for Maness, says she supported school closures and mask mandates, and opposed parents’ rights in their children’s education.

Some of the ads contain clips of Harris and Pelosi thanking Maness for introducing them during National League of Cities events last year, which Weaver and her supporters have at times referred to as “endorsements” from the prominent Democrats.

”Kathy Maness would be a disaster for our children,” says an ad cut by South Carolina’s Conservative Future, a PAC founded by John Warren, the multimillionaire businessman who forced McMaster into a runoff in 2018 and is a major Weaver donor. “Say No to liberals trying to run our schools.”

Maness has not been endorsed by any national Democrats, but has garnered praise from South Carolina Democrats, such as former state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell and former Columbia city councilwoman and mayoral candidate Tameika Isaac Devine.

Powers Norrell, who ran on the Democratic gubernatorial ticket in 2018, and Devine encouraged anyone voting in the Republican primary to cast a ballot for Maness.

“I’m voting for Lisa Ellis in the Democratic Primary,” Powers Norrell tweeted earlier this month. “But I pray all the people who vote in the Republican Primary vote for Kathy Mannes (sic). If she gets their party’s nomination, we’ll have two candidates in November who care about public education. Otherwise, I don’t believe we will.”

The Weaver campaign compiled instances of Maness appearing with or speaking on behalf of Democrats, and other examples of her “liberal” record taken from media accounts, and created a website to host them, liberalslovekathy.com.

Powers Norrell’s tweet, as well as photos of Maness with First Lady Jill Biden and a video of her endorsing Tameika Isaac Devine for mayor, appear on the site, which Weaver promoted at a debate last week.

“If you’re happy with the way education in South Carolina is going then you have a champion in my opponent,” she said in her closing remarks at Thursday’s debate hosted by the Florence County GOP. “She has failed to satisfactorily address the issues raised about her record because the fact is she can’t. Her liberal record and endorsements both with and from Democrats speak for themselves.”

Maness, who at the same debate repeatedly called on Weaver to cut out the attacks for the final few days of the race, said Friday that Weaver had ignored her request and instead “doubled down on the deceit.”