Top 5 SC Senate Pickup Opportunities for Democrats in 2020 – Inside the Numbers

It’s easy to write off South Carolina as a “red state” and not give it any further thought when assessing Democrats’ electoral chances. However, even our home and native Palmetto State is not immune to the changing political winds in the South, at least among states with rapidly growing urban and suburban areas. It is in these areas that Democrats in South Carolina have already seen some progress within the last two years.

The most obvious example of this is Joe Cunningham’s upset victory in the 1st Congressional District, which had been held by Republicans for almost 40 years. The freshman Congressman showed a remarkable ability to perform well in areas that Democrats have traditionally performed poorly, specifically in Berkeley and Dorchester counties, where he got 45.7% and 47.4%, respectively. Berkeley and Dorchester counties are both experiencing suburban growth from the rapid expansion of Charleston, and like other Southern states such as Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia, South Carolina is starting to see the political ramifications of that as well. Rep. Cunningham also performed well in traditionally Republican suburban areas of Charleston County, allowing him to run up a large margin of victory in the county, taking 57.1% of the vote.

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Joe Cunningham (D) is an example of the political realignment underway in the South Carolina Lowcountry.

In 2018, this trend was further confirmed when Democrats also picked up two State House seats in the outlying areas of Charleston, as freshman Representatives J.A. Moore and Krystle Matthews defeated incumbents Samuel Rivers and Bill Crosby. This suburban/rural realignment shows itself upon a deeper analysis of the 2018 gubernatorial results.

We have analyzed each State Senate and State House district in terms of how they voted in the 2018 gubernatorial election. Unfortunately, there is no way we can adequately account for split precincts or absentee votes, so these results are not perfect, but they will give us a general idea of a district’s partisan lean. If anything, the lack of absentee votes likely skews these numbers slightly in favor of the GOP. We will refer to this rating as the Partisan Rating from here on out in the article (PR).

In this article, we examine the Democrats’ top five pickup opportunities in the Senate. We started here not just because it is the upper chamber of South Carolina’s General Assembly, but because Democrats could conceivably flip the chamber to Democratic control. Democrats currently trail the Republicans 27-19 in the 46-seat South Carolina Senate, but five pickups could conceivably return the Senate to Democratic hands for the first time since the early 2000s.

Top 5 Senate Pickup Opportunities

To arrive at our top five Senate pickup opportunities, we simply selected the five with the most favorable partisan lean that are currently held by Republicans. We will break down each seat one by one from most likely to change hands from one party to another, and we’ll include a couple of “honorable mentions” at the end.

1) State Senate District 41 (PR: D +5 ) – Incumbent: Sandy Senn (R)

The most obvious pickup opportunity for Democrats in the State Senate is District 41, the first of multiple Charleston-area pickup opportunities. This district, most recently held by Paul Thurmond, Walter Hundley (very briefly), and longtime Republican Senate stalwart Glenn McConnell before that, was won by James Smith with approximately 53% of the vote. Adding additional vulnerability to this district is the fact that incumbent State Senator Sandy Senn (R) is a freshman with very little to offer in the way of seniority. The state Democratic Party rightly focused on this district in its recruitment efforts, and that effort yielded a quality candidate in Sam Skardon. Skardon has deep local roots, a long history of local political involvement, and a distinguished resume that includes serving as a staffer for legendary Georgia Democratic Representative and civil rights hero John Lewis. Skardon has proven himself to be an able fundraiser and should be viewed as the most likely candidate to spring an upset on an incumbent Republican senator.

2) State Senate District 43 (PR: R +4 ) – Incumbent: Chip Campsen (R)

The second-biggest opportunity for a Democratic pickup is in State Senate District 43, currently held by longtime incumbent Chip Campsen. Democrats recruited an excellent candidate in local attorney and former Charleston County Democratic Party chairman Richard Hricik, who has proven to be an excellent fundraiser and a hardworking candidate who is running a highly competent campaign. Gov. McMaster very narrowly outpolled James Smith in the precincts making up this district, garnering only 52% of the vote. Given the substantially favorable environment for Democrats both nationally and in South Carolina, Hricik stands an excellent chance of pulling off a major coup for Democrats.

3) State Senate District 44 (PR: R +9 ) – Incumbent: EMPTY

Sen. Paul Campbell unexpectedly resigned his seat in his Berkeley County-centric Senate district, setting up a contest over an open seat that has become considerably more friendly to Democrats in recent years. James Smith won 45% of the vote in the precincts making up this district in 2018, an unthinkable outcome even 10 years ago. State Senate District 44 is a prime example of the changing political winds in the Lowcountry, and it is precisely the kind of seat Democrats need to start winning if they are going to have any chance of making meaningful gains in the state legislature. Democrats have high hopes for their nominee, Debbie Chatman Bryant against Republican Brian Adams, who most Palmetto State political observers would agree was the weaker of the two Republican candidates running in their party’s primary.

4) State Senate District 37 (PR: R +14 ) – Incumbent: Larry Grooms (R)

While State Senate District 37 tilts further to the right than the other entries so far on this list, this may actually be a better pickup opportunity for Democrats than the numbers bear out. Democrats scored a major recruiting win when Kathryn Whitaker filed to run against Sen. Larry Grooms, one of the Senate’s most polarizing members who is considerably to the right of most of the Senate Republican caucus, especially when it comes to social issues. Whitaker has proven to be a competent fundraiser and should be an effective messenger on the campaign trail this fall. Grooms has a substantial war chest, with over $300,000 on hand, but his district is no longer the impenetrable Republican stronghold it once was. Look for this race to be very close in November, and if Trump suffers a landslide loss, possibly even a Democratic pickup.

5) State Senate District 38 (PR: R +11 ) – Incumbent: Sean Bennett (R)

Sean Bennett’s Dorchester-based Senate district is one that Democrats wouldn’t have viewed as a possibility even last cycle, but James Smith and Joe Cunningham both made major inroads in this area in 2018. Smith garnered 44% of the vote in Bennett’s district, which should have put him in at least some danger of losing his seat in a heavily Democratic year like 2020 is shaping up to be. However, the Democrat running for this seat does not appear to have a website and doesn’t appear to have reported any donations on the State Ethics Commission’s website. The state party would have been well-served to have recruited a highly competitive candidate in this district, and they’ll certainly focus on this district in 2024.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

  • Ross Turner (Senate 8 – Greenville County)
  • Greg Gregory* (Senate 16 – Lancaster and York Counties)

*did not file for re-election

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