Is SC Democratic Leader Switching Parties?

Isolated S.C. Senate minority leader subject of speculation …

Earlier this week, we ran an item concerning the South Carolina Senate Democratic caucus entitled “Who Is The ‘Cock Of The Walk?’

An homage to champion fighting birds that would battle to the death on riverboats navigating the mighty Mississippi, our story was notable in that the four-person list of aspiring contenders for this unofficial title did not include the ostensible leader of the caucus, Nikki Setzler.

Was this an oversight?  No …

The reality is that Setzler simply doesn’t wield the sort of clout enjoyed by the likes of Gerald Malloy or Brad Hutto, two Democratic lawmakers whose ability to play three-dimensional chess at the S.C. State House has elevated them to positions of near-unrivaled influence within the chamber.

We’re not saying Setzler is dumb.  Nor is he by any means impotent politically.

He’s just not the champion rooster …

Wait a minute, though … what does it matter who the Democrats’ “cock of the walk” is?  Don’t Republicans rule the roost in the Senate?

Technically, yes.  But the chamber currently features a pair of party-switching liberals (Hugh Leatherman and Luke Rankin) atop its most influential committees, which means when the time comes to cut deals on the budget and other major pieces of legislation – Malloy and Hutto’s cell phones are usually the first to ring.

Such is the working “majority” in the Senate – a fiscally liberal body that has presided over massive increases in government spending since the GOP took control in 2001 (growth which has utterly failed to produce anything resembling positive outcomes).

Setzler’s caucus appears to be a monolith, but in reality it is every bit as fractured as the GOP – just not on bread-and-butter tax-and-spending issues.

(Click to view)

(Via Travis Bell Photography)

Malloy (above), Hutto, Vincent Sheheen and Darrell Jackson are all huge personalities – with a host of powerful constituencies backing their plays.

How does one go about discerning and advancing the “will of the minority” in such an environment?  It is impossible … especially when so many Democrats are cutting deals with the GOP leadership on a daily basis to advance their preferred legislation.

“A party leader herds cats,” one GOP senator told us. “Nikki is in the lion’s den.”

That den was thrown into further disarray with the recent election of über-influential attorney Dick Harpootlian – a bomb-throwing populist who has the potential to tie this chamber in knots in the months to come.

What is a minority leader to do?

According to several of our sources, Setzler is considering switching parties and joining the GOP caucus – a move which would likely make him a lame duck lawmaker over the next two years given the racial composition of his gerrymandered district (map).  Several Democrats refuted that speculation, however, while Setzler himself did not immediately respond to our inquiries.

Setzler, 73, has easily beaten back his last three general election challengers (in 2008, 2012 and 2016), although his victory margin – which remains quite wide – is shrinking.  Also, it is worth noting the Asheville, North Carolina native ran as a so-called “conservative” in each of those cycles – branding himself as a centrist Democrat (irrespective of a litany of votes to the contrary).

Setzler’s district was carried by former GOP nominee Mitt Romney in 2012 by a 52.5 – 45.8 percentage point margin.  Two years ago, U.S. president Donald Trump won it by a 52.9 – 42.6 percent spread.

Is Setzler beatable if he remains in the Democratic fold?  Possibly …

Could he win the district as a Republican?  Doubtful …

In fact we don’t think he would make it out of the primary in such a race.

“How does he – the Democratic leader – get on the podium and message that?” one GOP lawmaker told us, pouring cold water on the idea.  “What, the governor gets him a Trump tweet?  Think that is going to save him in a primary?”

That’s a reference to S.C. governor Henry McMaster, who was dragged across the finish line in a contested GOP primary by Trump back in June.

Another GOP lawmaker we spoke with indicated the party-switching concept had merit, though.

“His district is purple and his caucus is getting bluer,” the lawmaker said.

Whatever their views on the “Setzler speculation,” every Republican senator we spoke with made it abundantly clear to us that they were not about to surrender any seniority to him (or to any other possible party-switcher) within the GOP caucus – which currently enjoys (nominally, at least) a 26-19 advantage.

“If he walks – and I have no reason to think that he does – he walks to the back of the line,” one senator told us.

We don’t think Setzler bolts, either … but that hasn’t slowed the chatter under the dome as lawmakers gather for an organizational session in advance of the regularly scheduled 123rd session of the S.C. General Assembly, set to convene on January 8.




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Banner: Travis Bell Photography

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