In our view, Rice was able to use his nomination candidacy to get a head-start on November by building momentum via a strong, district-wide run-off win, while Tinubu scored a symbolic, but divisive, vindication that leaves her the underdog in the fall contest for the new Congressional district.
For those of you who are armchair quarterbacks wanting to understand what happened tonight and why, here's our take on how the run-off races unfolded and what we saw as the key factors in both contests:
Republican race: Coastal shut-out and steady momentum growth cornerstones to Rice win
Rice turned what was expected to be a close race with former Lt. Governor Andre Bauer into a blowout. Pivotal to his win was rolling strong leads from the coast - Georgetown and Horry Counties. While Rice barely edged Bauer out in those counties in the primary (about 500 votes out of 24,000 primary votes), he scored knock-outs in the run-off, carrying the two counties by roughly 3200 votes out of roughly 20,000 cast, a large part of his district-wide margin of 3600 votes.
A strong showing of support for Rice along the coast was key, with the run-off endorsements by Horry-residing primary candidates Chad Prosser and Randal Wallace, who carried roughly twelve percent of the primary vote. Prosser and Wallace were joined by a long list of well-known GOP politicos from the coast in endorsing Rice, leaving Bauer with few visible supporters along the coast.
The decision by third-place candidate Jay Jordan, who won Florence and Darlington Counties in the primary, to not endorse a run-off candidate left that region's voters very much (with the second-largest geographic bloc of GOP primary voters) in play. With Rice secure along the coast and Bauer hoping to take advantage of Rice not winning the Pee Dee in the primary, it forced both campaigns to focus much of their run-off efforts in the Pee Dee, allowing Rice to go on offense in the region. With just under 10,000 run-off votes cast in the Pee Dee, Bauer would have had to win that region by upwards of two-to-one to offset Rice's coastal lead, an almost impossible challenge. Instead, Rice's carried the region by a mere 400 votes.
From the beginning, Bauer reportedly struggled to overcome high negatives, as reported from internal polling shared with us by several campaigns. While Bauer started the race polling in the mid-twenties, he had only been able to move his numbers to 32% in the run-off, suggesting he was struggling to sell himself to 7th District voters. By contrast, Rice went from near zero to 27% in the same period, suggesting he was doing a much better job of selling himself to voters. This lopsided momentum probably factored into Bauer's decision to go negative early in the run-off with a sloppy negative ad instead of putting more of his marketing efforts into positive advertising.
Don't be surprised if we see more of Jordan, Prosser and Wallace in the future, as each of their run-off actions played key roles in laying the groundwork for Rice's run-off win.
Democrat race: Tinubu builds on primary momentum while Brittain implodes
Primary night may or may not have decided the final outcome of the Democratic race, depending on what lawyers and judges had to say about it, but it turned out to effectively put an end to second-place candidate Preston Brittain's chances of winning the nomination.
Tinubu was heavily outspent in the primary, forced to largely self-finance her Congressional bid, while Brittain raised an impressive warchest and lined up a series of major endorsements, which he rolled out almost as soon as Chesterfield County State Rep. Ted Vick quit the race. In spite of that, Tinubu scored a double-digit primary lead over Brittain.
The decision by Brittain and other Democrats to contest the decision to declare Tinubu the Democratic nominee based upon modifying the primary vote by tossing out votes for Vick, who had withdrawn from the race, proved divisive. Many Democrats believed that Tinubu was the effective winner, carrying over 49% of the vote before the Vick votes were thrown out of the count, including a number of key Brittain supporters. Instead of risking getting caught in a political cross-fire over the legal challenge to Tinubu's win, many of those supporters dropped out of supporting him in the run-off contest.
While Brittain ultimately won his court challenge to force a run-off, the damage was done. His supporters had largely accepted Tinubu as the winner of the contest and bailed on his run-off campaign, leaving him dead in the water, while Tinubu's base, angered by what they saw as an attempt to undo her primary win, turned out in droves. In the end, Brittain managed to accomplish a rare feat of carrying a smaller percentage of the vote in the run-off than in the initial primary, with Tinubu winning the run-off by a three-to-one advantage.
This upset run-off landslide by Tinubu, as well as the legal battle, leaves a lot of those who invested their effort and political credibility in Brittain's candidacy, including much of the Democratic Party's senior leadership - including Rep. Jim Clyburn, SCDP Chair Dick Harpootlian, former Governor Jim Hodges and 2010 gubernatorial candidate Sen. Vince Sheheen - with egg on their faces and little reason to assist Tinubu, who will face an uphill battle in the fall.