LANCASTER, S.C. – South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Matt Moore shares some striking political data when visiting local party meetings: In a state where the GOP holds most statewide offices and congressional and state legislative seats, Democrats still hold the counties. Democrats also outnumber Republicans as sheriffs, coroners and auditors.
But that could change in 2014. Moore says his goal in next year’s elections is to flip the local offices to Republican control, completing a transformation that started nearly 50 years ago when then-Democrat Sen. Strom Thurmond went on statewide television and announced he was switching to the GOP – in a state so heavily Democratic that it didn’t even list party affiliations in its legislative manual.
The same transformation is occurring elsewhere in the South, in places where Republicans often didn’t put up candidates because Democrats had such a lock on the electorate.
Focus on local races is the next logical step, Moore said, because most Republican statewide offices, the two U.S. Senate seats, six of its seven U.S. House members and 106 of the 170 seats in the Legislature appear safely in the GOP control.
That means the party can afford to spend resources further down the ballot on the program it calls “Red to the Roots.”
“Local decisions have more impact than federal decisions or state decisions,” Moore said. “We want to have an impact on things like property taxes and schools.”
In South Carolina, counties have a lot of power. Only 35 percent of the state’s population lives in cities or towns, leaving 65 percent to live in unincorporated areas run by counties. The counties also set property taxes – the revenue generator for schools – and some counties even get a say in who gets on local school boards. Cities have relatively little power.
The template for Moore’s plan can be found in Lancaster County, a place that after Reconstruction didn’t send a Republican to the Statehouse until 1993 and gave Bill Clinton a nearly 7 percentage point win in the 1996 presidential election. In 2012, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won Lancaster County by nearly 18 percentage points.
The transformation is part demographics. Since 1990, the county has grown 48 percent to nearly 80,000 people. Much of that growth has spilled over from neighboring Charlotte, N.C., many of them moving to South Carolina looking for lower taxes and receptive to the Republicans’ message.
However, the change was due in part to Lancaster County Republican Party Chairwoman Sandy McGarry’s efforts.
First she identified Democratic office holders who seemed compatible to the Republicans’ platform. She took a computer presentation to them, full of population statistics and voting results down to the precinct level to show the Republican trend. Then she asked them to switch parties, and brandished her stick – a solid Republican challenger in the next election that could take advantage of the trends in her presentation.
It’s more than just numbers, McGarry said.
“They have got to be conservative. We’re just not asking anyone to switch,” she said.
The presentation convinced Sheriff Barry Faile, who switched parties this summer. McGarry’s efforts also helped get three new Republicans elected to the County Council, giving the GOP a majority for the first time in recent memory.
Democrats aren’t ready to give up their last power base. They also plan to emphasize races on the lower end of the ticket, reminding voters that a lot of these Democrats are faithful public servants who do a good job, state Democratic Party Executive Director Amanda Loveday said.
They also are emphasizing that they are a party with a much less rigid ideology that allows disagreement, saying Republicans are much more likely to force their members into taking sides publicly on an issue that they might disagree with privately.
“We’re a big tent party. You don’t have to have a straight-line view on every issue,” said Loveday.
The push to get Republicans in local offices is spreading to other Southern states, especially places like Tennessee.
“The last bastion for the Democrats is at the local level,” Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney said.
Unlike South Carolina, many states in the South elect judges at the polls, which makes it even more important to get Republican control, said Devaney, who is working to Tennessee’s counties to hold primaries that list party affiliation.
“Some of these judicial posts are way down on the ballot. At least if you give them a party label, they will have a general idea what their judicial philosophy is,” he said.
In South Carolina’s Lancaster County, the Republican trailblazer is state Sen. Greg Gregory, who decided to join the GOP in college in the 1980s because of Ronald Reagan. He ran in 1992, recalling how as he went to rural parts of the county, voters would needle him by telling a story that in the 1932 presidential election in the midst of the Great Depression that Democrat Franklin Roosevelt got 10,000 votes and Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover received two votes.
“They joked they were still looking for those two people,” Gregory said.
South Carolina currently has 21 Republican sheriffs and coroners and 19 Republican treasurers in its 46 counties. The GOP also has a majority in 21 of the state’s 45 partisan county councils. They think they can get majorities in all those offices and councils next year, which would end a takeover that started back when Republicans grimly joked they held “defeat parties” on Election Night because that was what was going to happen to their candidates.
“It’s real simple,” Moore said. “Anyone paying attention knows this is a conservative state and is likely to stay that way. It’s a matter of being on the right side.”
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