Dems' party 'on life support'

Elections prove S.C. is verging on being a one-party state

By Robert Behre
The Post & Courier- Sunday, November 7, 2010

As South Carolina's major statewide Democratic candidates paraded into the International Longshoremen's Association hall just 19 hours before the polls opened, a rock song blared to fire up the crowd.

The song, Chicago's "Alive Again," would be no harbinger of how the party would fare once the polls closed.

As one veteran Democrat said the day after Tuesday's election -- when it became clear that the party had lost every statewide race, won only one of six congressional seats and saw Republicans increase their Statehouse margin to 75 out of 124 seats -- "I think the Democratic Party is on life support."

The result was no singular shock. South Carolina has been becoming a one-party state for at least 20 years. Still, Tuesday's wipeout marked a new low for Democrats. Said Alex Sanders, former College of Charleston president and one-time Democratic U.S. Senate candidate: "We're approaching an irreducible minimum."

Waring Howe, a Charleston lawyer and former Democratic National Committee member, was equally blunt: "It's very clear now that South Carolina is being absolutely governed by one party in a very dominant way, and people have to question whether that's good for the state of South Carolina, whether that means Republican office holders will be as accountable to the people as they need to be."

Why should anyone care if South Carolina becomes a one-party state, especially if they don't mind the party in charge?

There are several reasons, experts and observers say.

If the party in power has no honest opposition, the public dialogue about solving our problems will wither, the seeds of corruption can find more fertile soil, voters will become more cynical about whether their participation matters, and candidates can become increasingly extreme if they're worried only about a primary fight and not about their prospects in November.

University of South Carolina political science professor Robert Oldendick said the Republicans' message of more limited government and no new taxes is finding widespread support.

"Obviously, that plays very well in this state," he said, "but what's the other way? What's the alternative? That's being lost at this point."

A look back

A generation ago, the Democrats were firmly in charge here. In 1980, the party held the Governor's Mansion, state House and Senate majorities, and all of the constitutional offices, though Republicans held one U.S. Senate seat and two of six congressional seats.

But Republicans could take heart that state voters increasingly were lining up behind their party's presidential contenders. That national effect on South Carolina politics continued Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the inability of Democrats to compete in South Carolina should concern more people than simply the Democrats, some experts say.

Political research shows a lack of party competition can lead to decreased feelings by voters that their actions will influence government. And that can lead to lower participation and turnout, said Erin McAdams, an assistant political science professor at the College of Charleston.

"Having a one-party state can become a cyclical process -- the more that individuals in the minority perceive that their party has little chance of winning, then they don't turn out to vote, which then reinforces the majority party's chances of continuing to dominate in the state," she said.

Lachlan McIntosh, a consultant who managed several Democratic campaigns, said Tuesday's result "is something we've never seen in South Carolina and will never see again. ... It was a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing."

He said a one-party system always is bad, no matter which party is in charge. "One-party rule means corruption and they only look out for members of their party if they're not worried about the other side," he added. "That means the average Joe, no matter what party they're in, gets left behind and ignored."

Andy Brack, a marketing and strategy consultant who ran for Congress as a Democrat 10 years ago and lost, agreed the party's problems stem in part from its lacking an issue that separates them from Republicans.

"Maybe it (Tuesday's result) was inevitable because Democrats do such a crappy job at politics," he said. "What do they stand for?"

The last time a Democrat won the South Carolina's governor race, Jim Hodges had a clear issue he would pursue that his Republican opponent would not: establish a statewide lottery to raise money for education.

Barbara Zia, president of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, said her organization is nonpartisan but recognizes the benefits when there's a robust discussion.

She said the problem extends beyond the status quo of state Democrats. Zia noted many third-party candidates were frustrated because they ran but often were blocked from forums and debates where they could get their message out. "I think that's a problem for democracy."

But Zia also noted many gave up the Republican Party for dead after the 2008 elections, but two years have made a big difference.

"I think reports of the demise of the Democratic Party are overstated," she said.

A look ahead

Oldendick said Democrats will have an opportunity as Republicans slash the state budget to tackle a significant revenue gap.

"What are the cuts going to be?" he said. "The Republicans, since they're dominant, are going to have to explain those cuts. They're not going to raise taxes. They really have to cut spending. When those cuts come, you're responsible."

However, Oldendick said the next general election could take on a national tone -- like Tuesday's did with the tea party movement -- because it's a presidential election.

"The problem the Democrats have at that point is those candidates aren't going to spring up overnight," he said. "You're talking about a major party that could not even field candidates for two of nine constitutional offices and had a candidate for the U.S. Senate that was his own story."

McIntosh agreed that the real question is whether the party will be able to recruit someone of state Sen. Vincent Sheheen's caliber to run in four years -- and whether that candidate will find the financial support that Sheheen found. "We're not really in worse shape than we were Monday," McIntosh said, "but the perception is not good."

Phil Noble of the S.C. New Democrats said any Democrat running in South Carolina begins at a 55-45 disadvantage. If they can't change the game -- either by setting themselves apart or raising questions about their opponent -- they won't win.

Noble said the party must do three things, including being ruthless in its reinvention from the grassroots up, with new people, solutions and technology.

He said it also must find and trumpet new ideas that promise to improve life for state residents, particularly ideas that Republicans are unlikely or unwilling to parrot.

"And we've got to hold the Republicans accountable. They're in charge. Every time Nikki Haley says, 'I want to take government back,' we need to say, 'Hold on! Time out! You (Republicans) have got everything!' "

State Rep. Seth Whipper, D-North Charleston, said Democrats must continue to offer alternate solutions and hope the tides turns back the party's way.

"I think we have an obligation to be the other side of the coin," he said. "Maybe some of the other's sides options will work. If it doesn't, then we'll need to be around to say we offered options that we thought were better. I don't know that there's much else to do."

Oldendick said the Democrats' problem is that their lack of success means their bench of potential candidates is more limited.

"It's really very difficult. It really is a long-term process," he said. "There are a lot of jobs I wouldn't want today, and (S.C. Democratic Party Executive Director) Jay Parmley's is one of them."

Howe said the party's revival likely will come from a younger group -- that a generational change is needed.

"A lot of people are frustrated and tired of the lack of success," he said. "They're going to be looking beyond some of the more established figures."