Special Election Special: South Carolina’s First District

by Jackie_South on March 31, 2013

SC map icon

This week, we learnt that there is to be a by-election in South Shields, following the resignation of David Miliband.  I’ll be posting on that election in the near future, but at the moment, it seems highly probable to be a safe hold for Labour.

But across the pond, there are also two outstanding ‘special elections’, the American term for by-elections, for two House congressional districts.  One in South Chicago should be an easy win for the Democrats but the other, in South Carolina on 7 May, is lining up to be an interesting race for all sorts of reasons.

The district

South Carolina’s first district is based in the Lowcountry: the coastal plains and islands in the southeast of the state.  It stretches from the area around the resort town of Hilton Head Island in the south to near the mouth of the wonderfully named Pee Dee River in the north. It takes in parts of five counties: Beaufort, Berkeley, Charleston, Colleton and Dorchester.

At its heart is the grand old city centre of Charleston, with its wonderful antebellum houses and tall-steeples (and, more sinisterly, its old slave market), and the district sweeps inland from here to take in some of the broader Charleston metropolitan area, including Summerville, up as far as Lake Moultrie (a man-made reservoir dating from the 1940s and named for a late-eighteenth century governor and war hero).

Its historic city centre make this an interesting place: it was here that South Carolina decided to become the first British colony to secede (initially declaring itself an independent republic in March 1776) and 85 years later, after the state became the first to secede from the USA, it was where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.

However, the district does not take in all of Charleston.  Whilst the old heart is here, once you cross north of Calhoun Street (overlooked by a column with a statue of that old racist, John Calhoun, standing on top) you are in the safe Democrat sixth district.  Besides the old city centre only outlying neighbourhoods, across the Ashley and Cooper rivers, are included in the first district. The highly Democrat city of North Charleston lies completely within the sixth district as well.

SC-01 map

Since 1990, the Republicans have herded together as many Democrat voters as they can from the poorer parts of greater Charleston and Columbia (the state capital) with the black-dominated old cotton-belt in between these cities to create the ultra-Democrat sixth district.  This gerrymandering makes sure that all the other districts in the state elect Republicans, including the first district.

The map below gives some indication of this, showing how the five counties voted in last year’s presidential election (the district boundaries are dotted).

In 2012, Obama lost the state by a margin of ten and a half percent (44.1% to 54.6%).  He carried two of the counties in this district, including the most populous, Charleston, although it should be noted that very little of the other, Colleton, is included within the district.  But the Republicans won by larger margins in the other three, with a 17% lead in Beaufort.  Beaufort County is a county of resorts, retirement homes and relative affluence.  Similarly, Dorchester and Berkeley counties are home to whiter, more affluent voters from Charleston’s suburbs.

SC-01 county voting

The five counties together are 66% (non-Hispanic) white and 30% black.  But the gerrymandering has created a district that is 75% white to 21% black.

Trimming away some of the black vote and transferring it to the Sixth District has made the First District one that has a Presidential Voting Index of R+11: that is, one that Obama lost by around 58%-40%.

Past elections

These demographics do not mean, despite this being a Deep South seat, this is one where there is much evidence of racism affecting the result.  In fact, the special election has been caused by its Republican congressman, Tim Scott, being appointed to become the South’s first black senator since 1881, and indeed the only current black senator.

Scott was first elected to congress in 2010 as part of the Tea Party movement.  For all of the ills of that movement, it was one in the Republican Party that was largely colour-blind.  Scott transformed the meagre 4% majority of his white predecessor to a princely 36.7%.  This was partly due to the Obama surge of 2008 receding, partly because of the ethical questions that dogged that predecessor (Rep Henry Brown was fined for starting a forest fire, and then pushed changes in the law on forest fires) and partly because of lower turnout but it was no mean feat in the South for a black candidate.

Despite the close result in 2008, this has been a Republican seat since 1980, so in reality the political balance of the district lies somewhere between the 2008 and 2010 results.

The boundaries changed in 2012, thanks to South Carolina being entitled to gain a seventh congressman. Those changes shifted the district south along the coast – it had previously stretched to the North Carolina border, taking in the cities of Georgetown and Myrtle Beach, but only stretched as far south as Seabrook Island.  This has probably had little political impact overall on the district.

The Democrats did not seriously contest the district in 2012: Scott raised $462,000 to the Democrat Bobbie Rose’s $22,000.

The chart below shows the results for the last four elections in the district.

SC-01 result graph

This election

So why the interest in this seemingly fairly safe Republican district?  In part it is because the 2008 result shows that the Democrats can come close in the right circumstances.  Charleston, after all, is a fairly progressive place by Deep South standards: it is, for example,  the county that was most progressive when a same-sex marriage ban amendment was passed in the state in 2006 (65% support, as opposed to 78% statewide) whilst voters in Charleston itself, along with those of Folly Beach, narrowly rejected the amendment.

Indeed, the 2008 democrat candidate who almost created an upset, Linda Ketner, was openly lesbian: this may be a relatively affluent, white district but by South Carolina standards it is relatively liberal.

But more interesting are the candidates.  Earlier this month, the Democrats selected Elizabeth Colbert-Busch as their candidate.  She is a business woman and academic, but is probably best known as the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert, who mercilessly lampoons conservative politicians on The Colbert Report.  That might not carry much weight in upstate South Carolina, but certainly rallies the base in the more urbane greater Charleston area.

The Republicans are holding the final stage of their primaries for the election on Tuesday, but the favourite to win it is Mark Sanford.  This is where it gets really interesting: Sanford, who was congressman for the district in the late nineties, went on to become governor of the state and was tipped to be a possible presidential candidate.

Then, in June 2009 he went missing, apparently on a hiking trip.  Those not knowing where he was included his family and desperate state officials wanting him to agree decisions.  Journalists quickly discovered he was not climbing the Appalachians but engaged in rather more horizontal exercise in Argentina.  He confessed all, stepped down and got divorced.  It later transpired that an earlier visit to Argentina had been funded by South Carolina taxpayers.

He is now married to his Argentinian partner.

Whilst the Republican establishment are supporting his political rehabilitation, voters in the district seem slower to forget, not only his dishonesty to his former wife but also that to his electors.   The Tea Party are backing conservative Charleston County councilman Curtis Bostik, his competition in Tuesday’s run-off.  However Bostik starts a long way behind: Sanford took 37% of the vote in the first round to Bostik’s 13%.  Sanford also has the money in the race.  He leads Bostik 53%-40% in the latest polling.

It seems that voter resentment about Sanford is not just within the Republican Party.  The most recent poll by Public Policy Polling for the election gives Colbert-Busch a narrow lead in a head-to-head with Sanford: 47% to 45%.  She ties Bostik at 43% each in a similar head-to-head.   This is despite the same poll showing a 57% disapproval rating for Obama in the district.

SC-01 polls

There is still a long way to go, but this could be a real nail-biter.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jackie South April 8, 2013 at 9:46 am

*** UPDATE ***

As expected, Mark Sanford won the nomination last week, securing 57% of the vote in the run-off. This is a convincing win but not an overwhelming one and he may have difficulty in consolidating all that 43% of Republicans that voted against him.

Micah Cohen at FiveThirtyEight has a post on the race: his take is probably right – an interesting race where Sanford is probably favoured given the politics of the district, but where Colbert Busch still has a reasonable chance.



Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: