In a hotly contested Hilton Head Island mayoral race, incumbent Drew Laughlin failed to win enough votes Tuesday to avoid a runoff with challenger David Bennett.
Voters will go back to the polls Nov. 18 to decide which candidate will serve a four-year term as mayor.
About 36 percent of the town's registered voters cast ballots Tuesday, according to unofficial results from the Beaufort County Board of Elections and Registration.
Laughlin collected 4,522 votes, or 42 percent. Bennett, chairman of the Planning Commission, received 4,391 votes, or 41 percent.
The incumbent mayor said that with five hopefuls in the race, he wasn't surprised about the runoff. A candidate needed to top 50 percent of the vote to win outright.
"I was hoping (to win) but I wasn't expecting (it); I knew a runoff was likely," said Laughlin, a Spanish Wells resident. "We're just going to have to keep working hard until the very end.
Bennett said as a first-time candidate, he's been delighted with the response he's received from residents.
"Having not had the experience of running I didn't have the framework to size up whether I was doing well," said Bennett, who lives in Palmetto Dunes. "I feel like what we have talked about has resonated with a lot of people. ... We'll circle up tomorrow and keep moving forward."
Attorney Joe DuBois was a distant third. He finished with 1,020 votes, or about 10 percent. Another first-time candidate, he said the support he and Bennett received indicate citizens are frustrated with the status quo.
"Voters have expressed a desire for a new direction for the town," he said. He said he'll endorse Bennett in the runoff.
"I have come to know (Bennett) and found him to be a man of integrity who has the best interests of Hilton Head at heart."
Challenger Rochelle Williams, a massage therapist, received 559 votes, or 5 percent. She said she enjoyed the race "and wished everyone good luck." She declined to say whether she will support Laughlin or Bennett.
Challenger Cork James, a former magazine publisher, picked up 142 votes, or 1 percent. Attempts Tuesday to reach him for comment were unsuccessful.
Turnout was lower Tuesday than in the 2010 mayoral election, when 53 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the initial race. In a later runoff, Laughlin beat architect Tom Crews.
This year's race hinged primarily on island redevelopment and the challengers' frustration with what they perceive as town officials putting business interests over residents' concerns.
Bennett, a developer, called Laughlin a "caretaker mayor" in an advertisement in The Island Packet.
He has said he would be more proactive and create a "master plan," or document that defines what the town wants to do with land outside gated communities. He said this document would outline ways to redevelop the island's aging office buildings.
He also criticized the Shelter Cove Towne Centre, a development he has called a "missed opportunity."
Laughlin, who has served on Town Council since 2003, has touted his experience in public office, as well as $290 million in private investment he said the island has attracted during his four-year tenure.
He views Shelter Cove as a success and has high hopes for the proposed University of South Carolina Beaufort campus on Office Park Road, which he says will bring young residents and more money to the island.
Both candidates have promised to focus on paving dirt roads, expanding sewer and stormwater systems, and helping the arts community.
Laughlin, 62, and Bennett, 48, out-raised their competitors by a wide margin.
Laughlin collected $18,250 while Bennett raised $17,475, according to campaign-finance reports. DuBois, who was third in terms of money raised, picked up $1,242.
Runoff election polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m. Nov. 18. Residents vote at their regular polling places.
The winner will be sworn in with other council members at the first meeting in December.
Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.