by BUCK JONES
Now that Labor Day has passed, it is officially fall for those of us who follow the college football calendar. It is also the start of the political season, and while few things are as frustrating as being a Gamecock football fan perhaps even more dispiriting is being a South Carolina Democrat.
This past week I listened to the Bourbon in the Backroom podcast which is aural comfort food for me. If macaroni and cheese came via soundwaves, that would be Bourbon in the Backroom. The podcast’s two hosts (former Democratic state senators) invite elected officials, journalists (including Will Folks, the founder of FITS News), and pundits from both sides of the political aisle to sit and discuss politics in the state of South Carolina.
The teaser for this past episode indicated that the guest would be you, Christale Spain, the newly elected head of the South Carolina Democratic Party. The most recent chairs of the SCDP have been Jaime Harrison followed by Travis Robertson, jr. In the case of Jaime Harrison, he tried to stem the tide for the party’s decline during his tenure, finally leaving and nearly toppling U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham in the 2020 election. His successor, in what can charitably be called a caretaker role, was the aimable Travis Robertson who presided over the party losing 8 seats in the State House (but picking up one in Richland County) to become the “super-minority” to the Republican super-majority in this past election.
I listened to your interview on Senators Sheheen and Lourie’s show with curiosity albeit heavily tinged with pessimism given the past decades’ fruitless progress in making any electoral gains. Honestly, it is almost Sisyphean the task that is demanded, to constantly push this lifeless party up over the mountain to electoral victory, and I wish you luck. But it is going to take more than luck or catching “lightning in a bottle” as Jaime Harrison repeatedly put it, to breathe life into the corpse that is the SCDP.
(Click to view)
Christale, you began by speaking about your background, which is indeed inspiring, rising from answering the phones at the headquarters to being elected the chairperson in a heated party election earlier this year. The initiatives you mentioned, most notably Project Roadmap, are at least something concrete that will provide a strategy to re-capture the five pick-ups you have targeted for 2024 (“at the very least five,” you said).
But quite honestly, I think what you need to do is radically depart from the failed SCDP efforts of the past twenty years. You stated during your fight to become chairperson of the SCDP that “I don’t think the ship is going in the wrong direction. What we have to do is execute.” South Carolina has lived an entire generation under one party rule. The last time that the Democrats won the governorship was in the last century when Jim Hodges won in 1998. The Republicans have controlled the State Senate and State House since 2001 and 1995, respectively. Whatever it is that the SCDP has been doing to reverse these electoral defeats has clearly not been working, and as the maxim attributed to Albert Einstein states, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.
Part of this turnaround has to be running candidates for every office. Yes, Joe Cunningham ran an awful campaign in 2022, but more importantly there were no Democratic candidates on the ballot in many House districts and statewide offices (so why vote?). Fifty-three SC House seats were unopposed with no Democrat on the ballot, essentially guaranteeing a Republican super-majority.
If you want to win, you have to at least show up. Thank you for including candidate recruitment as part of your Project Roadmap.
Additionally, you must go where the votes are.
South Carolina is a conservative state. I don’t think this is a newsflash for any of us. To build a new coalition of voters that will bring electoral victories, we need to realize that a majority of South Carolinians will not vote for a party that is weighed down from the national Democratic party brand. Most people vote based on tradition, if they vote at all (72% of all registered voters in South Carolina voted in 2020, but that percentage falls to 61% of voting aged adults who actually voted). It’s a form of self-identity, tribalism even. Indeed, Samuel Goldman, a noted conservative scholar, in an interview with the on-line magazine VOX said, “Most people just don’t think very much about political philosophy. They vote one way out of habit or out of vague affinity.”
With South Carolina basically a 54-46 percent Republican state, it will require a different kind of game to ever out hustle the Republicans, which is why I am advocating upending the playing board and starting over.
“All politics are national” Senator Sheheen has repeatedly stated on the podcast, but I respectively disagree. Yes, today the SCDP cannot win statewide in South Carolina, due to a variety of factors including the fact that the national Democrats, and its national leadership, are extremely unpopular to conservatives in South Carolina. The party needs to divorce itself from the national party as much as possible, and to re-brand, becoming laser focused on local issues, even going so far as ignoring the national party on whatever cultural issues are dominating the media.
Drop the “D” in the SC(D)P and become the South Carolina Party.
Building a new party, a new coalition of voters that spans from liberal to moderately conservative will require doing away with any ideological “purity tests” and demonstrating a truly open, independent spirit as a political force.
Thankfully on the podcast you agreed that the SC(D)P needs to become more engaged, talking and listening to voters. Creating a media operation is one element of that. Yes, you already have a Twitter, sorry, “X” account, and a website for the party. But how about a podcast? Or a YouTube channel? Create a safe space for all South Carolinians to come and listen and talk about the issues that are important to us, in a respectful, even humorous manner. Let’s do away with the political stump speeches of yore and join the 21st century utilizing TED-style talks, integrating graphics, memes, humor, music, and most of all, ideas. If you’re going to rebrand, let’s rebrand in a way that makes people go “wow” and creates discussion about the future, about a party that is relevant and vibrant.
You mentioned that you wanted to do a poll of voters. What wasn’t clear in your explanation was what the goal was of this poll, other than the last one that had been done was a decade ago (clearly, whatever was gleaned from that poll wasn’t implemented into electoral success). I would suggest that the poll shouldn’t be limited to Democrats, but to all South Carolinians. Ask open ended questions instead of polling on pre-set issues that you think are going to resonate.
Interestingly, when the The New York Times/Sienna poll asked midterm voters to name the most important problem facing America, only one of the survey’s 1,641 respondents mentioned the debt, the deficit, or federal spending. Yet one would never know this based on the performative drama that the Republicans in Congress rehearse whenever they have an opportunity. Likewise, the SC(D)P might be surprised about what they will learn from an open-ended poll.
Earlier I implored that you need to go where the votes are. Who votes the most reliably in every election? Retirees. If the SC(D)P can begin picking apart at the retirees who reliably vote Republican, it will be a start in building a new coalition of the young (already voting overwhelmingly for the Democrats), African-Americans (ditto), and the college educated (leaning more and more as well).
Give retirees something to get angry about, while at the same time offering them something to love.
In summation, here are a few modest proposals:
1. South Carolina is a conservative state, so a liberal SC(D)P party will never be able to build a stable majority. The SC(D)P needs to reinvent itself as a predominantly centrist alternative that values truth, equality, and fairness to a radicalized Republican Trumpist party.
2. Focus on issues and solutions that impact average people’s lives (Family focus – fix day care, but also senior care, and figure out how to incorporate vouchers in education in a way that benefits not just urban districts, …), I suspect these are the types of issues that any poll will reveal to be at the top of everyone’s minds in South Carolina.
4. Condemn hypocrisy (morally corrupt “Christians” wrapping themselves in Christian moral authority – e.g Jerry Falwell, jr., Rod Dreher, Marjorie Taylor Green, etc…the list is long), on the left as well as the right.
5. Embody a civilized “Southern” Liberalism as a counterargument in the culture wars against a coarsened Right.
6. Embrace the law (anti-Murdaugh, anti-corrupt good ol’ boys) and demand judicial reform that ensures equitable justice regardless of economic class.
I could go on, and probably will elsewhere, but want to close by thanking you for taking on this difficult task. Post-game, Monday morning quarterbacking the latest Carolina game is a ubiquitous activity, and I reckon giving unsolicited advice to others is as well. I wrote this with the hope it will spur discussion and change so that we see a new beginning for South Carolina in the coming years.
Cheers (and Go ‘Cocks),
ABOUT THE AUTHOR ...
Buck Jones is originally from South Carolina and a writer living in Paris, France. He is a regular contributor to Atlanta’s newspaper “The Georgia Voice” and the author of the novel “The Last Good Republican.”
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