South Carolina

In SC, GOP is winning rural voters, but Democrats pick up steam in cities, suburbs

Rural Darlington County usually votes for Democrats in S.C. governor’s races.

Yet this month, the Pee Dee county of 67,265 turned red to help Republican Gov. Henry McMaster keep his seat for four more years.

Data from the 2018 election show Republicans are making gains in the state’s rural areas, even in some traditionally Democratic strongholds.

But due to shifting demographics, Democrats are picking up votes, too, in urban epicenters and in suburban counties that typically vote Republican.

The state’s minority party hopes those changes will help it mount tougher challenges against Republicans, even after Democratic state Rep. James Smith’s deflating loss to McMaster in November.

“What we’ve seen is a remarkable change in South Carolina, particularly when it comes to rural counties” since 1998, when rural voters helped elect Democrat Jim Hodges governor, said Lachlan McIntosh, a Democratic operative who worked on Hodges’ campaign.

Strategists say S.C. voters are realigning, mirroring a national trend in which white, rural voters overwhelmingly side with Republicans and voters in cities pick Democrats.

Republicans still rule the suburbs, but Democrats are tightening the margin.

“When you start looking at red suburbs ... it’s not about carrying them,”McIntosh said. “It’s about figuring out how to cut your losses there.”

Early this month, Republicans made percentage gains in the governor’s race over 2014 in more than a dozen rural counties — taking big leaps in Chesterfield and Abbeville — in a midterm race with historic turnout.

Republicans picked up votes in 11 counties in the 2018 governor’s race in traditionally Democratic rural areas, including Darlington, a stride strategists say could be attributed, in part, to a lack of excitement for the Democratic nominee.

Democrats, meanwhile, made gains in urban and suburban areas of South Carolina.

In the conservative Upstate’s urban hub of Greenville — one of the state’s fastest-growing cities with an increasingly international and diverse crowd — Smith lost by nearly 16 percentage points, or roughly 28,000 votes. But four years ago, former Republican Gov. Nikki Haley beat Democratic nominee for governor Vincent Sheheen by about 36 percentage points.

In red suburban areas, Democrats tightened the governor’s race in 11 counties, including in Berkeley, Dorchester and Beaufort counties — where 1st District Democrat Joe Cunningham was on the ballot. Republicans picked up points in Kershaw County.

In Charleston, South Carolina’s biggest city — where Cunningham also was on the ballot and, in some areas, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn — Democrat Smith beat Republican McMaster by almost 15 percentage points. Former Republican Gov. Mark Sanford won Charleston County in both 2002 and 2006.

“Demographics is destiny to some extent,” said Larry Kobrovsky, chairman of the Charleston County GOP. “What you saw here is reflective of all over the country. But I’d caution that Charleston County has turned blue. That would be an overstatement.”

Both Republicans and Democrats see opportunities to stake a bigger claim in the state’s suburban communities.

“Saving the suburbs. That’s where the future’s going to be,” said GOP strategist Dave Woodard, a former Clemson University professor.

Beyond a preliminary analysis of Election Day, state Democratic Party chair Trav Robertson said he would hold comment until the S.C. Election Commission released its full comprehensive audit.

But, he said, “It does look like you’ve seen a shift in the agrarian counties falling behind Republicans and our urban centers shifting toward Democrats. It’s been happening across the country. It just hadn’t happened in South Carolina yet.”

Maayan Schechter: 803-771-8657, @MaayanSchechter
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