South Carolina Primary: Mark Sanford vs. Teddy Turner?

The race to fill Republican Tim Scott's vacant congressional seat takes unexpected turns.

The recent appointment of South Carolina Congressman Tim Scott to replace former Senator Jim DeMint last month opened up a feeding frenzy to fill South Carolina’s First Congressional District. Sixteen Republicans are seeking the now-open seat, including novices, legislative veterans, defeated politicos seeking a comeback and two candidates with national connections and name recognition, all jockeying for the special election contest for the seat.

The sixteen candidates will likely aim for the intermediate goal of making it into a run-off, which would feature the top two primary finishers should no candidate earn fifty percent of the vote. With so many candidates in the race and the seat’s history, it’s hard to see how anyone will even come close. In every open-seat contest for the seat since 1994, no fewer than six Republicans have sought the seat and no candidate ever drew a bigger first-round primary vote share than the low-forties, with many candidates ending up in the teens and single digits.

The First District has been based in the Charleston metropolitan area for much of the last century and runs south down the South Carolina coast, including much of Beaufort County, to the Georgia state line. Residents live in a collection of coastal retirement and resort communities and Charleston-area suburban bedroom communities, and the district’s economics are largely driven by international shipping, travel, tourism, and military spending. Manufacturing is making a growing presence in the region, especially with Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner production facilities in North Charleston. The district also boasts a strong military presence with the Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, an Air Force Base in North Charleston, Naval facilities in Goose Creek and North Charleston, and a Marine air base in Beaufort, and is home to a large contingent of military retirees, especially Navy and Marine veterans.

The two candidates in the race with the highest visibility are a veteran politico and a newcomer: former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, who once held the First District seat for three terms in the 1990s and Teddy Turner, a political newcomer who is the son of CNN media mogul Ted Turner.

Sanford held the First District seat for six years, served as governor for eight years and has over a million dollars in his gubernatorial campaign fund. But he will face several challenges: getting past donors to allow him to transfer campaign funds into his congressional campaign account, antagonistic relations from his tenure as governor, a district which was redrawn considerably since his congressional tenure, and lingering fallout from a highly publicized foreign affair and divorce.

While Sanford is believed by many to be the best-known candidate starting out, that perception and his past negatives have made him a target for some of the other candidates. His high name recognition failed to deter candidates from running for the seat and many past Sanford supporters are backing other candidates for the seat, suggesting he isn’t generating the enthusiasm of years past.

Turner, who graduated from The Citadel, the Charleston-based public military college, and has been a teacher in a local private school after working as a photojournalist, was a surprise early candidate in the race. In spite of being a relative newcomer to politics in the region, his candidacy has drawn strong early attention thanks to strong fundraising, which has allowed him to launch an early television advertising campaign ahead of other candidates, as well as a willingness to contrast his political views with that of his father in stump speeches.

Of the fourteen other Republicans running, three others have made strong starts in their campaigns for the seat:

State Senator Larry Grooms: Having served in the State Senate since 1997, where he is Chair of the Transportation Committee, Grooms represents a chunk of Charleston’s suburbs in Berkeley and Charleston Counties and is seen as one of the more conservative members of the Senate. He’s no stranger to tough fights in his senatorial district and has strong allegiances from many social conservative activists in the region, who are rallying to back his campaign. He was recently endorsed by Fifth District Congressman Mick Mulvaney, who ousted former House Budget Chair John Spratt in 2010.

Former State Senator John Kuhn: Kuhn represented a district in Charleston County, only to be defeated in a re-election primary in a race where Sanford and his ex-wife, Jenny, actively supported his opponent. Kuhn’s comeback campaign brought on Starboard Communication, the formidable strategic consulting firm that managed several high-profile races in the state, including the 2010 campaigns of Governor Nikki Haley and Congressman Mick Mulvaney and 2012 GOP pick-up of the state’s new Seventh Congressional District.

State Representative Chip Limehouse: Limehouse won his Charleston-based state House seat in 1994, the same year Sanford started his political career by winning the First District congressional seat. Well connected in Charleston business circles, Limehouse has easily fended off a number of challengers over the years and risen to the first vice-chair post in the powerful Ways and Means Committee in the State House. He was also well-known for sponsoring many of the state’s laws regarding violent sexual predators.

Other notable candidates for the seat include:

Keith Blandford:  Blandford was the Libertarian candidate for the seat in 2010 and was gearing up for a 2014 Senate bid when the First District seat came open. Blandford will also seek the Libertarian nomination for the seat.

Curtis Bostic: A former member of Charleston County Council, he was ousted in 2008 by Democrat Vic Rawl (who later lost the 2010 Democratic U.S. Senate primary to Alvin Greene).

Peter McCoy: A state Representative from Charleston who ousted a Democratic incumbent two years ago. An attorney and former prosecutor, he’s starting his second term in the House.

Elizabeth Moffly: Having lost two bids for State Education Superintendent (and endorsed the Democratic nominee following her failed 2006 GOP primary bid), Moffly is in her first term on the Charleston County School Board.

Ray Nash: Nash served as Sheriff of Dorchester County, a suburb of Charleston, for twelve years from 1996 to 2008 and presently works as a security consultant.

Andy Patrick: A former Secret Service agent, Patrick represents a State House seat in Hilton Head, which he took in 2010 by ousting the prior Republican incumbent.

The other GOP candidates - Bryant, Hoffman, King, Larkin and Pinkston - are newcomers to politics. While many of them share many of the same political messages as the other candidates – opposing Obama administration policies, cutting spending, addressing the national debt and highlighting homeland and national security - they’ll be hard-pressed to learn the ropes in this compressed special election calendar, forced to learn which issues matter to voters, craft targeted appeals which will persuade and motivate those voters, recruit supporters to do the needed grunt work, find willing campaign donors in a tough economy – and if they can master all these, figure out how to organize all these inputs in time enough to wage a winning campaign. In these kinds of races, most newcomers at more of a disadvantage than in regular elections when there’s up to a year to campaign, instead of just a matter of weeks, and usually have more advanced notice that a seat is coming open, so they’ll face long odds at rising above this crowded field.

It’s also likely the sixteen Republicans will split up the expected fifty to seventy thousand GOP primary voters into relatively small vote shares, possibly repeating the 1994 primary, where several candidates were within several thousand votes of each other. In such a field, many candidates may find it challenging to rise above the clutter of campaign messaging from all the competing campaigns, so some voters, unable to pick out a candidate from the blur, or seeing many of the candidates as similar, may engage in “spin the wheel” voting. This effect was blamed for the 2010 Democratic U.S. Senate primary win in South Carolina by Alvin Greene, an unknown candidate who upset a former judge and state legislator.

Democrats also have three candidates in a primary that is expected to draw far less attention and heat as the GOP primary. In a seat which has been in GOP hands since 1980 (with only one close call for Republicans – in 2008), the GOP nominee will be an early favorite to carry the seat - even if such a wide and hotly contested field will make it hard to spot a potential primary winner. While the primary outcome may be uncertain, what is certain is that this race - and its unprecedented field of candidates - will be worth watching.

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