S.C. Democrats are banking on voters having a memory.
They say S.C. voters have not forgotten how, on Republican Gov. Nikki Haley’s watch, a state agency failed to prevent hackers from stealing millions of taxpayers’ personal information, parents learned late about a tuberculosis outbreak in an Upstate school, and the state’s child welfare agency missed abuse that led to child deaths.
As S.C. Democrats gathered in Columbia Friday, State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, Haley’s Democratic challenger, and other Democrats predicted that narrative of incompetence will win them the governor’s office in November.
But Haley and her allies are the ones now dominating the airwaves with their own narrative.
Haley has two television ads out, touting the state’s falling jobless rate, while the Republican Governors Association has run five TV ads attacking Sheheen, a Camden lawyer and onetime city prosecutor, for having defended accused criminals and tying him to the federal Affordable Care Act.
Friday’s annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner and Saturday’s state Democratic Party convention marked the official kickoff of the 2014 election season, including the long-expected rematch of Haley and Sheheen, who ran against each other four years ago. Then, Haley, a Lexington state representative, beat the Camden state senator by 4.5 percentage points.
Despite the GOP ad blitz, Sheheen said he’s not worried about where his campaign is now.
“It’s a great place to be,” he said, referring to the attack ads. “It means they’re worried, spending millions of dollars attacking me and throwing mud. We wear that as a badge of honor.”
Haley’s campaign spokesman Rob Godfrey said the governor’s two TV ads have been positive, touting her record producing jobs in the state, leading to the lowest unemployment rate in six years and the “fastest growing economy on the east coast.” The Haley campaign, Godfrey added, has nothing to do with the Republican Governors Association ads.
But those ads feature the same attacks that Haley’s campaign and the state GOP have leveled against Sheheen and continue to make. “South Carolinians from all walks of life are shocked to learn that Vince makes his money trying to reduce jail time for violent criminals – a fact that he has long tried to cover up by fighting ethics reform and refusing to disclose who pays him,” Godfrey said.
Sheheen, who has supported ethics reform and income disclosures for lawmakers, predicts the negative ads will backfire.
“People aren’t stupid in this state,” Sheheen said. “They know what Haley’s doing, they know that her record for the past few years is a bad one, and they understand that she’s trying to distract voters by throwing mud.”
To win, Sheheen says his campaign is operating differently from four years ago. The campaign is using modern data tools to find Democrats and independent voters, then reaching them through grass-roots, face-to-face campaigning. The senator also has been meeting with women voters.
Education, traditionally a strong issue for Democrats, also is central to Sheheen’s campaign.
Sheheen has been pushing for an expansion of the state’s free 4-year-old kindergarten program. That initiative is gaining traction as part of bipartisan education proposals moving through the Legislature.
But Haley also is laying a claim to the education issue.
Last year, the Republican met with lawmakers and education leaders to develop an education reform proposal. This year, she included $175 million in her state budget program for technology, reading coaches and more money for schools.
In late March, the Movement Fund, a pro-Haley political action committee, ran an ad praising Haley’s education spending plan, now part of the Legislature’s budget deliberations.
Sheheen’s only campaign ad, thus far, has been an online video attacking Haley for vetoing millions in education money since 2011 and blaming her for the state’s poor high-school graduation rate.
The senator and Democratic Party leaders say the pro-Sheheen TV ads will come later.
For now, they say they question the value of the pro-Haley camp’s ads, launched six months before the November election. S.C. Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison said he doubts voters will remember the anti-Sheheen ads in November.
But Citadel political scientist Scott Buchanan said Democrats should not be so “casual” about the race.
“I don’t know that I would make that leap of faith that (voters are) not going to remember (the ads),” Buchanan said.
Haley’s incumbency, name recognition, fundraising success and outside support all combine to give the Republican governor an advantage, he said.
But Sheheen and Harrison say the attack ads, paid for by outside groups, mean Haley is vulnerable.
“I know those national committees really well,” said Democratic chairman Harrison. “The only reason they are supporting Nikki Haley is not so much because she is their friend. It is because they are very concerned that Nikki Haley is in a troubled spot.”
The ads have created a lot of buzz and some reaction, leading legal associations to defend attorneys from what they say is an unfair attack on the legal profession. That could translate into added support for Sheheen as November nears.
Also, just as the Republican Governors Association has been spending money in South Carolina to support Haley, the Democratic Governors Association could weigh in.
Just weeks before the November 2010 general election, the Democratic group gave $500,000 to the S.C. Democratic Party. Since last June, it has donated another $145,000 to the state party.
In addition to the television ads, the Republican Governors Association has given the S.C. GOP $126,000, according to S.C. Ethics Commission campaign filings.
Asked if Sheheen can depend on the Democratic Governors Association running its own campaign ads in South Carolina, communications director Danny Kanner said that group does not discuss its strategy.
But, he added, “Vincent Sheheen will have the resources to communicate what voters already know.”
Republicans on deck
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal will headline the S.C. Republican Party’s Silver Elephant dinner, a major fundraising event, on June 6 in Columbia.