SC Politics

2024 South Carolina Primary Preview

“Politics is a blood sport in South Carolina.”

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For the second time this year, South Carolinians are heading to the polls. Back in February, they cast ballots in dueling presidential preference primaries (see results here and here). This Tuesday, they will cast their votes in partisan primary elections for state and local offices – determining which candidates will represent the two major parties in November’s general election.

Given how non-competitively drawn our state’s political districts are, in most cases partisan primaries are the only elections that matter … as the overwhelming majority of incumbent politicians in the Palmetto State face either token opposition or no opposition at all.

A lack of competitive races drives down voter interest – and participation – turning most of these races into “turnout drills,” or battles between opposing camps to identify and “turn out” more voters than their rival.

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There’s also no top-of-the-ticket statewide race this year – no election which obscures all other contests in its shadow. We’re not picking a United States senator, nor a governor – nor even any statewide constitutional officers (those are all on the ballot in 2026, though).

In other words, lower-tier races are getting the attention they deserve … to the extent the electorate is paying attention.

Are they? We’ll find out over the next twenty-four hours …

Which races will we be paying attention to on primary night? Let’s take a look …

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Without a doubt, the battle for South Carolina’s fourth congressional district – which includes the two biggest population centers in the Palmetto Upstate – has turned into an old-fashioned barnburner. This race has got everything Hollywood could ask for in a summer thriller: Power, money, sex scandals and two young, energetic opponents going at each other full throttle.

The race also highlights the ideological divide that is increasingly pulling Palmetto State Republicans into opposing camps … and then setting them at war against each other. 

Incumbent congressman William Timmons, the scion of one of the Upstate’s wealthiest families, is asking voters to send him back to Washington, D.C. for a fourth term. But Timmons has found this to be his rockiest ride since he was first elected in 2018.

First, there was a messy extramarital affair that led to a super secret divorce (all of which first came to the public’s attention two years ago with Timmons’ bungled attempt to head it off at the pass).

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But the GOP establishment faithful have rallied to one of their own. Money was never going to be a problem for Team Timmons, and it wasn’t. Nor were VIP endorsements, including the biggest get of all: Donald Trump.

While it’s terribly cliché, it’s also totally accurate to say state state representative Adam Morgan’s campaign has a David v. Goliath quality to it. Running on little more than a financial shoestring, the chairman of the S.C. Freedom Caucus has successfully framed his brand – and made his case – as a status quo alternative who would move the GOP in a different direction in Washington.

He’s got the backing of several local high-profile local names (Upstate businessman John Warren and Greenville County sheriff Hobart Lewis, among them) and is personally pounding the pavement in key precincts.

Heading into the final stretch, at least one significant poll found one in three Republicans still hadn’t made up their mind about who to vote for. One way or the other, this race had the potential to be the story of the night come Tuesday evening

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Every so often, a race comes along that’s like a highly anticipated prize fight featuring two powerhouses slugging it out in the ring. Yet by the final round, one pugilist has clearly run out of steam – leaving those in attendance awaiting the referee’s call. Such is the case in South Carolina’s Lowcountry.

Incumbent congresswoman Nancy Mace doesn’t shy from controversy; rather, she eagerly grabs a metal rod and runs into the thunderstorm, hoping lightning will strike. When it does, she thrives on the attention she receives (and when the skies don’t cooperate by sending a storm her way, she’s remarkably adept at knowing how to gin up electricity of her own).

Mace’s two terms in congress have seen their share of sturm und drang, believe us. Including taking former president Donald Trump to task after the January 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol riot and voting to give House speaker Kevin McCarthy the boot. The former rubbed conservatives the wrong way, but the latter endeared Mace to them.

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Businesswoman and former state bureaucrat Catherine Templeton saw an opportunity when Mace earned the GOP establishment’s ire – and had hoped to do this year what Joe Cunningham and Katie Arrington were unable to do in 2020 and 2022: Bump off Mace at the ballot box.

Templeton seemed poised to give Mace her toughest challenge yet – but it didn’t turn out that way.

First, Mace showed observers she was a remarkably adept politician by patching up things with her frenemy Trump, even landing his endorsement (Trump went with Arrington last time around.)

Next, Templeton had a series of stumbles. First, she was convincingly painted right out of the gate as the front candidate for McCarthy’s vendetta against Mace, which in turn put her on the defensive as she (unconvincingly) insisting she was still the same “conservative outsider” she was when she ran for governor in 2018.

Further complicating matters was her teenage son’s arrest on assault charges in a disturbing case – which went down while he was working as a paid staffer on his mom’s campaign. 

“Sure things” are few and far between in contested reelections. But the closer we get to primary day, the more it looks like this is Mace’s race to lose.

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ESTABLISHMENT v. FREEDOM

Repeat after me: “Politics is a blood sport in South Carolina.” We’ve all heard that so many times, and for so many years, we can recite it by rote. But this year the Palmetto State is living up to its reputation.

The S.C. House Republican caucus has that rarity of rarities in legislative politics: A super majority. Republicans rule the roost in a state that’s ruby red – and they enjoy such a commanding margin that any and all resistance to conservative agenda items should be easily melted away. Yet until just recently, ours was the most liberal Republican-controlled legislature in the nation.

What gives?

Clearly South Carolina Republicans have mastered the same sleight of political hand practiced by their D.C. contemporaries. Both talk out of the right side of their mouth at election time, then vote out of the left side. Or as the founding editor of this outlet noted last week, conservative priorities “shouted from the rafters when these candidates are seeking votes vanish completely from the equation when they start casting votes.”

With a whole lot of nudge-nudge, wink-winks to Democrats, the two sides team up and vote together. The result: Despite their supposed ideological differences, state spending keeps soaring and state government keeps growing while our taxes stay high, our incomes stay low, our schools stay terrible and our roads turn to dust before right our eyes.  What good is having a super-majority if Republicans keep producing the same atrocious results that Democrats did when they were in charge?

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RELATED | REJECT RULING UNIPARTY

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Recently, though, the apple cart was upset – giving uniparty leaders apoplexy. The S.C. Freedom Caucus consists of seventeen or so members who have had the audacity to govern in office just as conservatively as they campaigned when running for office.

When they declined to sign a draconian loyalty oath crafted to the “uniparty’s” unilateral benefit, they were expelled from the Republican Caucus. Undeterred, these citizen-legislators formed their own caucus, and a court supported their bold action.

Sensing the clear and present danger to their continued existence, uniparty leaders sanctioned the creation of a group called the Palmetto Truth Project, funded it with a king’s ransom in shady dark money, and tasked it with being the status quo’s pit bull.

Its first item of business was dispensing with the “truth” as it unleashed a political blitzkrieg on Freedom Caucus members – and candidates aligned with them. Case in point: After sending thousands of mail pieces falsely accusing caucus leader RJ May III of proposing the death penalty for women who have an abortion (May didn’t do that – and doesn’t support such a policy), the group belated admitted on X that it more or less assumed he had.

Clearly, it doesn’t take the “truth” part of its project very seriously …

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Where should you invest your political capital? Our Palmetto Political Stock Index has got you covered!

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The “uniparty” even activated its propaganda ministry (a.k.a. The Charleston Post and Courier), which repeatedly hyperventilated in the campaign’s closing weeks about how horrible the Freedom Caucus is, in one case with hilariously hypocritical results.

Endless dark money, outright fabrications, glowing print accolades from the establishment’s Hallelujah Chorus section … the “uniparty” has huffed and puffed with the severity of the Big Bad Wolf in the “Three Little Pigs” tale.

Will the Freedom Caucus’ house still be standing when the polls close?

Stay tuned …

Programming alert: Be on the lookout for a special post-primary edition of the Palmetto Political Stock Index to bring you fully up to speed on the big winners and losers from Tuesday’s voting.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Mark Powell (Provided)

J. Mark Powell is an award-winning former TV journalist, government communications veteran, and a political consultant. He is also an author and an avid Civil War enthusiast. Got a tip or a story idea for Mark? Email him at mark@fitsnews.com.

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