While the two remaining Republican candidates for S.C. governor are preparing to debateWednesday, Democratic nominee James Smith will be out raising money.
Monday’s fundraiser, with the Conservation Voters Political Action Committee, is an effort to replenish Smith’s campaign war chest for November’s general election.
Raising money — a lot more money — is just one of the things the Columbia Democrat must do if he is to be elected South Carolina’s first Democratic governor in 20 years.
S.C. Democrats — a sometimes fractious group — also must unite behind Smith, while at the same time attracting new voters.
Smith will need to present S.C. voters with big, bold ideas about the state’s future, giving them a reason to take a chance on a Democrat in the Governor’s Mansion for the first time in decades, political observers say.
“For a Democrat to win statewide in South Carolina, three things have to happen: You have to have a strong candidate. You have to have a weak Republican candidate, and then you have to have a favorable national environment,” said S.C. Democratic operative Tyler Jones.
“There’s a very big chance (Smith) has all three.”
‘This isn’t county council’
S.C. Republicans, of course, would disagree with that assessment.
But Democrats say they see unprecedented excitement building behind Smith’s campaign.
“Since the primary ended, James has been capitalizing on the excitement and the momentum that Tuesday offered by fundraising and continuing to talk to supporters from all over this state,” said campaign spokesperson Alyssa Miller. “We’ve seen an incredible uptick in our fundraising from folks who are just so excited, not only by the results from Tuesday but also about the optimism that James brings to this cycle.”
But that must translate into dollars.
Miller did not offer any specific numbers of Smith’s recent fundraising. But the Democrat will need a lot more money before S.C. voters head to the polls in November to buy ads and put volunteers on the ground in most, if not all, 46 S.C. counties.
“This isn’t county council. This isn’t even a state legislative race,” said College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts. “This is a statewide contest, where it’s going to take some resources.”
Smith must raise between $3 million and $10 million to be competitive in November, some Democrats say.
“It’s hard to give a figure, but it’ll probably break records,” Jones said. “Republicans raise money in big chunks. As long as James can continue to grow his small dollar army, he will be able to compete with whoever the Republican is.”
Thus far, Smith has proven to be an adequate fundraiser, at best.
Before the June 12 Democratic primary, Smith raised about $1.1 million. The two Republicans in the June 26 runoff for the GOP nomination for governor raised seven times that much during the same time period.
Gov. Henry McMaster raised $4.4 million while Greenville businessman John Warren accumulated $3.3 million, a sum skewed by the fact that Warren gave his campaign $3 million.
“Republicans will always out-raise Democrats in the money race. It’s not even a race,” said Jaime Harrison, former chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party, now associate chair of the Democratic National Committee. “They have a lot more big-money interests at stake.”
‘If he wants my help, he has it’
S.C. Democrats see the McMaster-Warren runoff as proof the S.C. Republican Party is in disarray.
“They can’t coalesce behind one candidate,” S.C. Democratic Party chairman Trav Robertson said Tuesday. “It shows a hell of a lot more of the disarray in the Republican Party than it does in the Democratic Party.”
Still, to grab the attention of undecided voters, independents and moderate Republicans — a fraction of the S.C. GOP that Democrats hope to pull over to Smith’s campaign — Democrats must change the way they talk to voters, observers say.
S.C. Democrats long have needed to change their tone to run more winnable campaigns, party chairman Robertson acknowledged Wednesday.
“I often say my mom is a liberal and my dad is a Democrat. My mom believes in rational, intelligent conversation … and my dad says, ‘Just beat the SOBs,’ ” Robertson said.
“Sometimes, we have to change the way we talk, change to whom we talk, change how we talk and change how we go after voters.”
Democrats are hopeful that Smith’s pick for lieutenant governor, state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell of Lancaster, can do some of that talking.
This November is the first time the Democratic and GOP nominees for governor will appear on the ballot with a running mate/lieutenant governor, who the nominee has selected, on a combined ticket.
The hope is that running mate will help a candidate broaden his or her appeal to voters, bringing a different race, geography, gender or experience to the ticket.
Powers Norrell comes from rural Lancaster County, a contrast to Smith, who lives in the shadow of the University of South Carolina.
She was the first in her family to graduate from college and a daughter of mill workers — a story that Democrats hope could capture rural S.C. voters who voted for Trump in 2016.
“They are two of the best candidates we’ve had in a while,” Harrison said. “They will be the change we so desperately need.”
But first, the party must be united behind Smith.
Charleston technology consultant Phil Noble — who came in third in the Democratic primary — has endorsed Smith despite throwing repeated jabs at him on the campaign trail over gun control.
“He has my full endorsement, and if he wants my help, he has it,” Noble said via email.
However, as of Friday, Florence antitrust attorney Marguerite Willis — who came in second in the Democratic primary — had not publicly said whether she will endorse Smith.
Willis did speak by phone with Smith after Tuesday’s primary, but Willis’ spokesman Les Braswell said Thursday the pair have not talked about an endorsement.
‘Ride the wave’
Smith has one thing going for him that twice unsuccessful Democratic gubernatorial candidate Vincent Sheheen, a state senator from Camden, said he did not have in 2010 and 2014 — a more favorable political climate.
“I had (Barack) Obama hanging above me. He wasn’t popular in this state,” the Kershaw Democrat said.
“When I ran (for governor in 2010), there was the largest Republican wave in the country. We’re seeing the opposite of that right now to some extent. He (Smith) can’t control it, but he has to capitalize on it.”
While Democrats talk about a “blue wave” of anti-Trump voters in November nationally, the president’s approval ratings remain relatively high in South Carolina.
The latest Winthrop Poll, in April, put Trump’s S.C. approval rating at 46 percent, up from 42 percent in February. Trump’s disapproval rating was 47 percent, down from 50 percent.
But recent upsets in red states since Trump took office have S.C. Democrats excited.
For instance, Democrat Doug Jones won Alabama’s open U.S. Senate seat in December, beating Roy Moore, the Trump-backed GOP candidate.
“When I was running, the wave was crashing on me,” Sheheen said. “In this election, the wave is breaking for James. But he has to be able to ride the wave.”
Smith can do that, Sheheen said, if he focuses on “kitchen table issues” and does not let national politics become a distraction.
“This is a different year, and there is really something reminiscent of ’98,” said Democratic operative Lachlan McIntosh, who worked on the 1998 campaign of Jim Hodges, the last Democrat elected governor of South Carolina.
“There is an energetic base of Democrats we haven’t seen in a while. It’s a special opportunity that doesn’t come around much.”
‘Outside of the box’
Hodges — coined the “education governor” — took a huge gamble in his 1998 run against then-Gov. David Beasley, a Republican.
Hodges proposed a lottery to help pay for college scholarships and improve S.C. public schools — a “brave and bold” proposal that won over Democrats and Republicans, McIntosh said.
“No one had ever done that before,” McIntosh said, adding, “James is going to have to find issues that attract people who don’t normally vote Democratic.”
Smith — who calls himself the state’s “next education governor” — says he has those bold ideas that can appeal across the aisle.
He says he will push legislation to lower college tuition rates — noting a proposal that Sheheen introduced this year to increase the state money given to each college for enrolling in-state students. In return, colleges would have to freeze tuition for a year.
For public schools, Smith has called for teacher raises.
“This is a special opportunity that doesn’t come around much,” McIntosh said.
“In politics, timing is everything. James has found himself in a good spot.”
What Smith must do
What state Rep. James Smith, the Democratic nominee for governor, must do to win the Governor’s Mansion in November
1. Raise a lot more money. Smith raised $1.1 million for the Democratic primary. The top two Republicans raised seven times that much. Smith will need from $3 million to $10 mlllion to win in November, some say.
2. Unite his party while Republicans fight among themselves. Democrats are famously fractious. The second-place finisher in Tuesday’s primary, Marguerite Willis, has yet to endorse Smith. However, the GOP has yet to be able to select a candidate, and the GOP nominee who emerges may be weakened by a sometimes bitter primary and runoff.
3. Appeal to independents and moderate Republicans. Democrats hope some S.C. voters will see Smith as an Afghan war veteran, not a — shudder — Democrat. They also hope running mate state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell will be able to convince rural voters to cast a Democratic ballot.
4. Keep the race local while capturing the enthusiasm of a national “blue wave.” Focus his campaign on “kitchen table issues,” not national politics.
5. Sell a big idea. Smith talks about wanting to be the state’s “next education governor,” making college more affordable and giving raises to teachers. But is that big enough?