South Carolina gives GOP a ruby-red bright spot in midterms
The crowd at South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster's election night party chanted along with the Republican incumbent as he closed his victory speech with a Tim McGraw lyric: "I like it, I love it, I want some more of it."
It was a fitting tune for the South Carolina Republican Party, which got more than just "some" of it in a cycle when its GOP counterparts across the country failed to generate the wins typically seen during a midterm election under an opposing party's president. McMaster won reelection by nearly 18 points, double the margin in his last go-around and the largest victory in a South Carolina gubernatorial race since 1990.
But the substantial success came down ballot. Republicans netted seven more state House seats-- including five districts represented by African American Democrats in a surprising result, even after redistricting — to gain a supermajority in the lower chamber for the first time since at least Reconstruction.
Election night was "better here in South Carolina, certainly, than other places around the country," Drew McKissick, the state GOP chairman, told reporters on Wednesday. "In South Carolina, the 'Red Wave' came and swept in along the coast and went all the way to the upstate, proving, yet again, what we already know, that South Carolina is a solid Republican state."
Tuesday's results cemented the state GOP's gains over the last decade in rural areas, according to Matt Moore, who served as South Carolina Republican Party chair from 2013 to 2017. House districts covering rural counties like Jasper and Hampton, Greenwood and McCormick, Sumter and Clarendon, and parts of Charleston and Colleton all flipped to Republicans. Meanwhile, Democrats picked up one seat in suburban Richland County.
Republicans have been growing their legislative majority for a generation now. When Moore was party chair, he said a total of 80 House Republicans felt out of reach. That there could be as many as 88 House Republicans next term is "stunning" to him.
White, rural South Carolina has become less and less competitive, said Vincent Sheheen, a former state Senator who ran twice as the Democratic gubernatorial nominee.
"You're seeing that the suburbs are more competitive," Sheheen said. "But you also saw traditional Democratic strongholds crumble in the rural areas."
McKissick partially attributed his party's success this year to the state GOP's largest door-knocking campaign for a midterm election. He also said strong candidates at the top in McMaster and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott helped "build a straight-ticket machine all around the state."
South Carolina is one of six states that allows voters to choose all of their party's candidates straight down the ticket with a single ballot selection. The system had long benefited Democrats until 2016, when McKissick said South Carolina Republicans outpaced the opposition in straight-ticket voting for the first time. This year, 62% of the roughly 1 million straight-ticket ballots cast in South Carolina were Republican, according to McKissick.
Republicans' straight-party votes alone set them up to quickly outpace all votes cast for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Joe Cunningham.
"South Carolina Republicans are supporting the team more than Republicans in other states," Moore said. "The reason is good candidates. Republicans lost nationally where bad candidates underperformed."
Straight-ticket voting — along with gerrymandering — decreases competitiveness and contributes to lower turnout, according to Joshua Meyer-Gutbrod, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina.
Roughly 60% of South Carolina state House candidates ran unopposed, including 55 Republicans and 17 Democrats. That figure is higher than the national average for uncompetitive races, which is about 40%, according to Meyer-Gutbrod. No Democrat ran in statewide elections for Treasurer, Attorney General, Comptroller General or Commissioner of Agriculture.
Lawmakers also gerrymandered competition out of some state House races, Meyer-Gutbrod said, benefitting not only the Republican majority but incumbents from both major parties.
"It leaves citizens looking at it thinking their vote isn't going to count. There is very little chance to swing an election," Meyer-Gutbrod said. "And the result is they just don't turn out. Why invest that cost if the chances of you having an impact aren't that prominent?"
Midterm turnout dropped among all South Carolina registered voters from 55% in 2018 to roughly 51% in 2022. Meanwhile, the state added over 241,000 registered voters amid population growth. The number of Democratic straight tickets dropped by nearly 160,000 compared to the totals four years ago.
Some South Carolina Democrats — inspired in 2020 by record fundraising totals for Jaime Harrison's unsuccessful challenge to U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham — are now questioning how to move forward.
While Democrats might expect to lose in a conservative state like South Carolina, Mandy Powers Norrell said they shouldn't expect turnout to drop. For Norrell, the 2018 Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, the reduction was "shocking."
"We had fewer people actually show up to the polls by a lot. But we increased our registered voters by a quarter of a million," she said. "That points to a problem with, I think, inspiring the base."
State Rep. Jermaine Johnson said there was a lack of Democratic excitement, calling the mood "abysmal." The Democratic lawmaker said the party wrongly expected abortion to be its "saving grace," but liberal anger over the Supreme Court reversing its Roe v. Wade decision protecting rights to the procedure didn't buoy turnout in South Carolina.
Johnson called on elected officials, state party leaders and county-level offices to build a "consolidated, team effort." That process should start by engaging likely Democratic voters and those who have stopped voting on the local issues most important to them, Johnson said.
"If we don't stop the bleeding and put a Band-Aid on this bleeding right now, we're going to see much worse in two years when the (state) Senators come up for reelection," Johnson said.
South Carolina Democrats face the challenge of convincing Black voters, a key part of their base, that the party can prioritize their interests while statewide candidates attract broad enough appeal to win, said Todd Shaw, a University of South Carolina professor of political science and African American studies. The state's Black voters are "very pragmatic," he said.
"For the most part, with some notable exceptions, the Deep South remains deep red," Shaw said. "It's a Catch-22: you're in a deep red state and you're in a weakened position and you haven't yet built an effective coalition that you can convince that there's a pathway to winning."
Sheheen said boosting turnout requires showing voters that they will make a difference, pulling in swing voters and moderates. That was always going to be a tall task this year for the state's Democrats, he said.
"All politics is national. And that is very true in this state," Sheheen said. "The national trend gets exacerbated in this state. So if it's a light Republican trend nationally, which it was this year — they were talking about a wave, it wasn't a wave nationally but it was still a light Republican trend — then it is going to be more pronounced here."
James Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues