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State Sen. Vincent Sheheen said Wednesday he thinks Republican Nikki Haley’s first-term record as governor gives him a better chance to win in his second try for the state’s top office.
“In 2010, I ran because I thought I was best choice for governor, and I think, over the past three years, Nikki Haley has pretty much proven that,” said the Kershaw County Democrat, who announced Wednesday that he will run for governor in 2014.
“People are tired having one of the worst unemployment rates in the country. They’re tired of having roads crumble. They’re tired of this administration putting forward no plans for public education.”
Sheheen, who is the first candidate to officially announce a bid for governor, said he will not start his campaign until after the legislative session ends in June. Democratic Party officials said they don’t expect any primary challengers to the 41-year-old Camden attorney.
Haley, 41, has not formally announced whether she will seek a second four-year term, but the former state representative from Lexington widely is expected to enter the race this summer. Her re-election campaign already has opened an office in Columbia led by her former chief of staff.
With Sheheen’s announcement Wednesday, sniping from both sides began more than 18 months before the November 2014 general election.
“Not really much news here – he’s been running for governor his entire adult life,” said Haley political advisor Tim Pearson, who called Sheheen “a pro-labor union trial lawyer.”
S.C. GOP chairman Chad Connelly added: “The Vince Sheheen that announced for governor today is even more liberal than the Vince Sheheen that voters rejected in 2010. Today’s Vince Sheheen fully supports President Obama’s failed policies.”
Sheheen and S.C. Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian took turns comparing Haley to former Gov. Mark Sanford, who was Haley’s political mentor before his affair with an Argentinian woman became public in 2009.
Harpootlian said voters will remember both Sanford and Haley for their flaws.
Sheheen said, “The current administration and previous distraction have presented the same ideas and done the same things. It’s not just (about) Republican control, it’s this ideology of self-promotion and extremism that both Sanford and Haley have brought to the table that has occupied South Carolina’s government for 12 years.”
Pearson said Sheheen failed to win last time by linking Haley and Sanford, adding the governor would run on her own record, which includes helping bring more than 30,000 new jobs to the state.
‘He’s got a shot’
A December poll found Sheheen in a statistical dead heat with Haley.
Sheheen lost to Haley 51.4 percent to 47 percent in 2010, a race that observers called closer than expected.
Sheheen thinks he can make up that difference by talking about ideas, not personalities. “I learned issues and ideas matter even more (to voters) than I thought they did.”
The 13-year veteran of the state House and Senate said voters also can better compare the candidates in 2014.
“Last time, Gov. Haley was very aggressive in claiming that she could change the culture in South Carolina,” Sheheen said. “This time, people are going to hold the current administration and the status quo accountable. And we’re going to be holding them accountable. That was something we were not able to do the last time because she didn’t have a record.”
Democrats are expected to go after Haley for:
• Backing a deal that aided the port of Savannah in Georgia
Overseeing the state Revenue Department, where hackers stole personal information belonging to millions of S.C. taxpayers
• failing to overcome the state’s economic struggles.
Sheheen might have an opening due to Haley’s relatively low popularity numbers, said Neal Thigpen, a retired Francis Marion political scientist. Haley’s approval rating stands at 42 percent, according to a pair of polls taken since December.
“Most people I talk to say, ‘She’s OK,’ without a lot of enthusiasm or complaint,” Thigpen said. “He’s got a shot, but all the stars have to align.”
Sheheen should not suffer from having lost in 2010, Thigpen said. “In Southern politics, you’ve got to run and get your name out. A lot of folks will see that first race as a tune up.”
Jack Bass, a retired College of Charleston professor who has followed state politics for decades, said the proposed federal Medicaid expansion could become a pivotal campaign issue. Haley opposes the expansion. Sheheen supports expanding Medicaid for the first three years, when that expansion would be paid entirely by the federal government.
“It highlights their different approaches to government,” Bass said. “It has a moral component. It has an economic component.”
Next month’s special 1st District congressional election in the Charleston area between Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch and Republican Sanford could be a bellwether for the gubernatorial race, political observers said.
The Greenville-Spartanburg area usually goes Republican, while the Midlands leans Democratic. The Charleston region “will perhaps be the deciding counties,” Democrat Harpootlian said.
Bass added: “If a nominally Republican district elects a Democrat, that suggests there’s a lot of swing votes. ... If Colbert-Busch wins, (Sheheen) could tap into some outside money.”
Haley has a big money advantage over Sheheen, aided by the national attention that she has drawn from speaking at last year’s Republican National Convention and a leadership role with the Republican Governors Association.
Haley had $2 million on hand at the end of March, according to her campaign.
Sheheen’s gubernatorial campaign had $500, which the senator donated, according to its initial report, released Wednesday. Sheheen also had $92,300 in his state Senate campaign account at the end of 2012, which he could transfer to his gubernatorial campaign with donors’ permission.
The road to the race
Sheheen has been laying the groundwork for another gubernatorial run for months.
He attended the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte last fall and a Democratic Governor’s Association meeting in Los Angeles just before the holidays.
Sheheen also released a self-published book, “The Right Way: Getting the Palmetto State Back on Track,” last month that reads like a campaign platform. He spoke about the book during a tour across the state at the end of March.
Republican critics say Sheheen has sought political opportunities, while the governor has worked to better the state by pushing for ethics and regulatory reform, and attracting more jobs.
After stumbles early in her administration, Haley has shown resiliency, Bass said.
“She has been knocked down a lot,” he said. “But she seems to always get right back up.”