News analysis by Bill Davis, senior editor | If there were a weathervane atop the Statehouse dome in Columbia, it would be spinning, caught in a shifting to and fro between the middle, right and hard-right.
Depending to whom you talk, either the General Assembly is becoming increasingly conservative, or it’s becoming “just like our Congress in Washington that everyone complains about.”
Thanks to continuing indictments from a campaign money ethics pogrom led by state special prosecutor David Pascoe, new seats are coming open regularly. His task force recently added three new sitting solicitors, indicating the probe may be expanding, not diminishing.
Pascoe’s most recent target is state Rep. Rick Quinn (R-Lexington), who was suspended from the legislature after a grand jury this week returned three indictments against him. Pascoe’s task force has already zinged state Sen. John Courson (R-Columbia), and rumors are swirling as to whom will be next.
Recent election cycles have also pushed out traditional “Chamber of Commerce” Republicans from the state legislature in favor of young-buck Tea Party-esque conservatives.
A few years back, college student Joshua Putnam nearly defeated then House Ways and Means chairman Dan Cooper. After Cooper retired, the decidedly more conservative Putnam won the House seat.
In the Senate, the ultra-conservative “William Wallace Caucus” picks up new full and half-members with each election, with longtime senators Wes Hayes and Larry Martin getting picked off in 2016 by Sens. Wes Climer (R-York) and Rex Rice (R-Pickens), respectively.
But according to some observers, these conservative shifts don’t mean the General Assembly is yet conservative enough.
Former state GOP chairman Matt Moore said Friday morning that the legislature is continuing to send “conflicting signals” as to where it’s headed. “On one hand, conservatives keep getting into office … but the legislature just passed its first gas tax in 30 years,” he said.
“In the last election cycle, a number of ‘common sense’ conservatives, like small business owner William Timmons from Greenville were elected to the House,” said Moore, who said he’s been working on transforming the legislature in his various positions over the past 10 years. Moore stepped down Saturday after the state party elected Drew McKissick as his replacement.
“The transformation of this legislature is not complete, and won’t be until a number of individuals that ran and were elected as Democrats decades ago are gone,” said Moore. “When those depart, we will have a true transformation, until then this era of politics in South Carolina won’t be complete.”
Former Republican state Sen. Lee Bright from Roebuck echoed some of Moore’s sentiments, saying that he wondered where the “true” conservatives were in his former chamber during this year’s successful gas tax vote.
Bright was one of the chamber’s least popular members due to his staunch positions and unwavering commitment to ultra-conservative positions. One of only three senators to vote against removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds, Bright lost his seat last year in a four-way primary to former GOP state Rep. Scott Talley.
“That gas tax shot through and they even talked about borrowing money to pay for roads,” said a disbelieving Bright. Last year, Bright filibustered against the gas tax along with Republicans Tom Davis of Beaufort and Kevin Bryant of Anderson, now lieutenant governor.
No real stomach for redistricting, but maybe for coalitions
Some “Chamber” Republicans have begun murmuring about the need for open primaries and redistricting as a way to protect themselves from candidates backed by the burgeoning ultra-conservative wing, said former gubernatorial candidate state Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D-Kershaw) two weeks ago.
Sheheen said a redistricting bill could pass the Senate next year – if it were a silent vote. But he said he doubted there was political will from his colleagues on the other side of the aisle to do so publicly.
In the House, Putnam has announced he would run for secretary of state. Putnam said that he sees the scoreboard going back and forth, with the number of true conservatives “shifting back and forth.”
Putnam said the biggest factor in elections is whether a representative knows the district, and like him “knocks on doors and becomes known as the guy who shows up at everything.”
Like Sheheen, Putnam said he didn’t believe the political will existed to push for redistricting. But, he said the lack of enthusiasm originates in the Black Legislative Caucus, which didn’t want to risk hard-won ground.
Gibbs Knotts, the chairman of the political science department at the College of Charleston, said that because of the mixed messages, swirling political winds and back-and-forth scoreboard, the biggest changes in direction in the legislature in the coming years and sessions could be “biracial coalitions” that dominated state politics in the 1980s and early 1990s, but have since fallen out of favor.