2018 SC Primary Elections Recap – Democratic Governor’s Race, Part 1

The first item to address from the 2018 South Carolina primaries is the race for the Governor’s mansion for the Democrats. This result ended up producing some finality, with one candidate emerging without a runoff. Ironically, the few prognostications out there all pointed to a runoff. The Post and Courier’s Andy Shain, citing a couple polls from Target-Insyght(one in April and one right before Election Day), seemed to lean towards a runoff. Will Folks, while an openly-biased writer and gossiper on all things South Carolina, at least usually has a decent pulse on Palmetto State politics. He seemed convinced of a runoff on the Democratic side (To give Folks credit where it is due, he did own up to the surprise result after the primary results filtered in). Overall, the polls and predictions of SC pundits couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Rep. James Smith, a state representative from Columbia, handily defeated Phil Noble and Marguerite Willis. Noble, a technology consultant, was never going to compete against Smith or Willis due to a lack of awareness and financial resources. Willis, an attorney from Florence, was the candidate that foiled the predictions and polls of this race. Due to personal wealth, Willis, had the resources to compete, but did not prove to be competitive enough to Smith outside of the Pee Dee.

Comparison with past results:

What do the results for the gubernatorial primary tell us about the race and Smith’s chances in the general election? Let’s dig into some quick analysis about this.

A quick glance of the results map above shows that Smith was able to win 45 of the 46 counties, including Willis’s home county of Florence. The first instinct is to find a comparable race and peg Smith’s performance in a relative manner. The 2010 Democratic gubernatorial primary eventually won by State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, serves as the best comparison. See the tables below for a comparison of the final results of the two races.

2018 Democratic Primary – Governor’s Race
James Smith 148,633 61.81%
Marguerite Willis 66,248 27.55%
Phil Noble 25,587 10.64%
2010 Democratic Primary – Governor’s Race
Vincent Sheheen 111,637 58.96%
Jim Rex 43,590 23.02%
Robert Ford 34,121 18.02%

The good points for Smith in this comparison:

  • Sheheen did really well in the general election in 2010 against Nikki Haley (R), the eventual victor, especially in a wave of mid-term nationwide backlash against President Barack Obama. Smith outperformed Sheheen during the primary in the total votes result haul. While one cannot read too much into primary results correlating into a general election result, it doesn’t hurt that Smith outperformed someone who ended up coming close to winning a general election in a tough political cycle. President Donald Trump’s midterm will probably produce a backlash that Smith must ride to get the first Democratic governor elected in over 20 years in South Carolina.
  • Smith faced a better financed primary candidate in Willis (albeit self-financed) than Sheheen did, yet still outperformed him. However, this is qualified below.

Qualifying/bad points for Smith in this comparison:

  • As hinted above in describing the difficulty of Smith and Sheheen’s primary challengers, Sheheen’s main challenger may not have been well-financed; however, Jim Rex, was the State Superintendent of Education at the time and the only statewide elected Democrat.
  • The fact that Sheheen was able to raise more money facing a better known challenger than Smith had is not a death knell, but something that Smith must improve on. The comparison of the two’s fundraising numbers are posted below for reference.
  • The need for Smith to exceed Sheheen benchmarks in fundraising is because Sheheen kept campaign finance parity with the eventual governor, Haley.
  • To ride a Trump backlash wave, Smith must exceed Sheheen’s numbers because the election in 2010 was for an open office, as Governor Mark Sanford (R) was term-limited. This election is not as easy because the two remaining Republican candidates, who are participating in a runoff on June 26th, have unique financial advantages over Haley.
  • Current Governor Henry McMaster (R) has already demonstrated his financial abilities as an incumbent by raising $4.5 million in the primary, more than Haley raised in the entire 2010 election cycle. Greenville businessman John Warren, the other potential Republican candidate, is independently wealthy and has shown no qualms in self-financing (he has contributed $3 million of his own wealth).
  • Smith needs to run ahead of Sheheen’s fundraising benchmarks due to these well financed opponents. One would think that if he his outraised by the magnitude shown in the primary, Smith can’t take advantage of the anti-Trump wave.
Contributions during Democratic primary1
Vincent Sheheen – 2010: $1,361,878
James Smith – 2018: $1,115,783
1Contribution data from the South Carolina State Ethics Commission’s Candiate Campaign Disclosures. These were specifically from the pre-election (primary) campaign disclosures. (Link)

Stay tuned for part two with more geographically and statistically focused analysis!

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