Decision 2024

Democrats in South Carolina must work harder than ever to survive in an era of Republican domination

FORT LAWN, S.C. — (AP) — South Carolina state Sen. Mike Fanning likes to talk to people. He will talk about anything, but if the Democrat from Great Falls is able to steer the conversation, he's not likely to say much about Washington.

Fanning believes deeply that public servants should focus on where they can make a difference, but for him it's about survival, too. In a state set to hold the first Democratic presidential primary of 2024, Fanning is among an ever-dwindling number of Democrats still holding office in a party that has lost 31 straight statewide elections.

South Carolina, which also holds a crucial GOP contest later in February, is a place where voters lived for decades by the old southernism that they would vote for a yellow dog before pulling a lever marked “R.” These days that fabled dog leans Republican.

That means Democrats have to work harder than ever. Perhaps more importantly, they have to find ways to distinguish themselves from their national counterparts. So Fanning climbs into his 1970 Chevrolet pickup truck almost every weekend to traverse a district that stretches from the Charlotte, North Carolina, suburbs to rural farmland north of Columbia.

Politically, South Carolina varies from its neighbors. Georgia has two Democratic U.S. senators, and North Carolina has a Democratic governor. The Palmetto State is moving in the other direction.

The Republican governor won by 17 percentage points in 2022. The state's only Democratic congressman is Jim Clyburn, who has been in office 31 years from a majority Black district. The three county councils in Fanning’s district are dominated by Republicans — a political reality that doesn't alter his thinking.

“I'm a Democrat. It's what I believe in," Fanning said. “I think it matches what other people believe, too, if they'll listen and give me a chance.”

Recent history has shown that South Carolina Republicans use their levers of power better and tend to be more organized. Districts are drawn so the GOP can dominate. When Republicans see a chance to win local races, they send party leaders and volunteers in waves. Their state leaders can both sweet-talk Democrats into switching parties and pull out numbers showing one good Republican opponent could end a Democrat’s decades of public service.

Fanning's state Senate district hasn’t sent a Republican to Columbia since at least Reconstruction. The teacher and education administrator won reelection by 3 percentage points in 2020 and then had one of the fastest growing and rapidly reddening areas of the state added to his district.

Even when Democrats get business leaders on their side, success is elusive. A state hate crime bill, for example, has the backing of major corporations but languishes in the state Senate, where Republicans hold a 30-16 majority. No explanation is offered for the inertia, which leaves South Carolina and Wyoming as the only states in the nation without such a law.

“Respectfully, if we have folks on the left who don’t like the agenda that is being set, go out and win a fricking election,” Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said after Democrats complained.

Fanning does most of his heavy lifting back home. He goes to every street festival, back-to-school bash, family reunion, chamber of commerce meeting and road-naming he can, betting that the personal touch can help him eke out one more win.

The work never stops. Back in the summer, he bounded out of his un-air-conditioned truck, nicknamed “Ole Yella,” for the first of 10 stops on a sweltering Saturday and sprinted toward the booths at the Old Town Market in Rock Hill.

"You've seen it. I almost never win in the Senate," Fanning told a reporter trailing behind. "But everywhere I go I'll be a winner today."

It hasn't always been this way. Coming out of Reconstruction after the Civil War, South Carolina's open embrace of segregation helped keep it aligned with the Democratic Party.

In 1932, 98% of South Carolina voters — almost all white in a state where nearly half the residents were Black but systematically blocked from casting ballots — chose Franklin Roosevelt for president at the start of the Great Depression. It was the Democrat’s biggest single-state win in his landslide.

The Republican takeover has been long, steady and at times infused by racism. One of its seminal moments was former governor and Sen. Strom Thurmond's landmark decision to switch parties in 1964 as he fought to block civil rights legislation in Congress.

More recently the fuel has been population growth and a decrease in the percentage of African Americans coupled with white voters, especially in suburbs and rural areas, turning away from Democrats after years of framing from conservative media and amid the changing dynamics of identity politics.

The state's population has increased 52% since 1990, adding about 1.8 million people. Most are people moving in, and plenty of them are retirees concerned about taxes, high prices and overactive government.

State Democratic Party Chair Christale Spain said Democrats need to do a reset on their brand, moving local issues to the forefront. That point was hammered home in 2020 when U.S. Senate candidate Jaime Harrison raised and spent $130 million to try to beat Republican incumbent Sen. Lindsey Graham, who spent $100 million. Harrison lost by 10 percentage points.

Spain, who took over after Republicans flipped seven statehouse seats in 2022, said the divisions inherent in national politics can sometimes overshadow local candidates with good ideas trying to unite communities.

“We need to focus on Main Street issues and point out how extreme these Republicans are in their communities,” Spain said. “We need to do a better job of recruiting better candidates. We're going to have to eat this enormous elephant one bite at a time.”

One critic of the Democrats' approach in South Carolina is Joe Cunningham, who flipped a U.S. House seat around Charleston to the Democrats for one term before his 17 percentage point loss to Henry McMaster in the 2022 governor's race.

Cunningham supports the No Labels push to find an alternative to a looming Joe Biden-Donald Trump rematch. He said Democrats don't do enough to develop good candidates, pointing out there was no Democrat running in 45% of South Carolina House races in 2022.

“Democrats are failing to offer an alternative that appeals to the majority of voters, who crave change and are fed up with the extremes on both sides," Cunningham wrote in an opinion column when he joined No Labels.

South Carolina Republicans, meanwhile, have taken advantage of the changing national priorities of both parties. They took over the South Carolina Senate in 2000 by getting a Democrat to switch parties. It's been a key tactic in their growth this century.

South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick and his staff pick off sheriffs, clerks of court, county council members and other local offices, adding another layer of erosion and making it harder for Democrats to find their way back to power.

“I wouldn’t call it a political realignment, but a political evolution, especially in the South over time. And what we do is we throw gas on it everywhere we can,” McKissick said.

McKissick headed to Darlington County this fall to welcome yet another party switcher. Coroner Todd Hardee was first elected in 2000 as a Democrat in a county that two years earlier was lost by the incumbent Republican governor and native son David Beasley.

Hardee said what the Democratic Party stands for nationally finally drove him out. He told the crowd how he sorted it out speaking to his 8-year-old grandson about issues like gender identity and abortion.

Fanning backs national Democrats on those issues and others, like LGBTQ rights and public education. Ask him about whether he is going to vote for Biden, a Democrat, or Trump, a Republican, and he steers the conversation somewhere else.

He's banking on personal connections to help him keep his Senate seat. He has about 105,000 constituents and would meet every one if he could.

He started his summer Saturday before sunrise and barely made it home for date night before dark. He took notes along the way, including one from a relative of a prominent Republican who asked for a favor and thanked him for fighting for her town. She whispered an apology that she couldn't be more public about her support.

Fanning promised to check on the red tape keeping a pre-kindergarten program from opening. When a college student asked if he could intern in the Senate, Fanning recited his cellphone number.

His days are filled with selfies. Everyone gets one. Upon request, Fanning even lay down on the concrete to pose with a family dog.

The photos go up on his Facebook page as soon as he can upload them.

“I got into this because I like to help people,” Fanning said. “I wish more people understood, we're at our best when we are helping everyone be their best.”