Charleston is officially a Democratic county. A look at the results from the past few election cycles shows why Republican incumbents running countywide have an uphill climb these days.
Going back to the 2008 general election, Republican John McCain soundly defeated Democrat Barack Obama statewide in the presidential election. In Charleston, however, Obama edged McCain with a 53-45 percent margin. That year, 57 percent of Charleston voters who voted straight ticket voted Democratic, while only 40 percent voted straight-ticket Republican. The trend continued in 2010. In a midterm election year, Charleston County still had more Democrats voting straight-ticket (49.5 percent) than Republican (46.6 percent) according to the S.C. Election Commission.
In perhaps one of the most dramatic contrasts for S.C. elections, in 2012, Republican Mitt Romney beat incumbent Obama by 10 points statewide. Still, Obama narrowly won Charleston County (50.4-48 percent). That year, an even higher percentage of straight-ticket voters cast ballots for Democrats (53 percent) than Republicans (44 percent).
Same story in 2014. A whopping 56.8 percent of straight-ticket voters supported Democrats in Charleston County that year, while only 40.6 percent voted straight-ticket Republican. Statewide, as then-Gov. Nikki Haley throttled Democratic state Sen. Vince Sheheen by nearly 15 points, Sheheen defeated Haley in Charleston County 48.5 to 47.8 percent.
These trends continued into the last presidential election. While Republican candidate Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by almost 15 points statewide, Clinton won Charleston County by a margin of 50.6 to 42 percent. Again that cycle, 52.7 percent of county straight-ticket voters voted for Democrats as opposed to 42.9 percent who voted straight-ticket Republican.
The takeaway from these recent elections is that any Charleston Democrat running countywide has a built-in cushion of about 8 to 10 percent among those voting straight ticket. Republican candidates must be strategic if they want to neutralize that advantage, and some GOP incumbents have been able to do so. The most notable recent example is Charleston County Probate Judge Irv Condon, a Republican incumbent who narrowly defeated Democratic challenger Stephanie Ganaway-Pasley by a slim margin in 2018, despite most other countywide races breaking for Democratic candidates.
The outcome of that race was the mirror image of the race for Register of Deeds, for instance, where the Democrat Michael Miller defeated Republican Tommy Hartnett by the same margin.
If a Republican incumbent wants to defeat the Democratic headwind, especially in a presidential election cycle, that candidate must appeal to a much broader base than that which is usually targeted by statewide Republicans. Local candidates have the ability to distance themselves from controversial topics such as abortion and immigration, focusing on personal connections, experience, and bipartisan appeal.
To the extent that candidates show that they can do a great job regardless of party affiliation, they may find that voters care less about party title and more about electing someone they know and trust.
Charleston Probate Judge Irv Condon’s victory last year shows that an incumbent Republican can win in a Democratic county with the right message and campaign strategy. The most recent race for Charleston County Register of Deeds offers the opposite lesson as a cautionary tale. In that race, voters rejected Republican candidate Tommy Hartnett in favor of a Democrat who campaigned more actively and enjoyed significant name recognition.
The message to Republican incumbents is this: You can win in Charleston County in a countywide election, but cannot do so by relying only on Republican voters for support. If candidates emphasize their experience, community connections, and non-partisan appeal, they will still have an uphill climb, but it is one that is eminently achievable.
This article, written by Dwayne Green, first appeared in the Charleston City Paper on May 1, 2019. View Dwayne’s full archive of articles at the Charleston City Paper as a guest columnist. Photo by David Martin on Unsplash