State House races to watch

This year's House races take place in a very different environment than in years past. Over the last decade, the GOP House caucus' efforts have gradually swept almost every easily-winnable House district into their control, allowing the GOP to move to contest a collection of mostly-rural swing and Democratic-leaning districts.

However, this year's efforts have been complicated by the ballot court ruling, which forced a number of races that might have been settled in the primary to continue into the fall, putting some districts on the fall radar screen that might normally be done deals. In the House contests, petition candidates are playing a more prominent role in the House battleground than for the Senate, probably because the races are easier to work and more affordable than those for Senate districts. In fact, three House races we're watching have no candidates listed on a major-party ballot.

The House doesn't often see members who were elected as petition candidates. Bubba Cromer held a House seat in Richland County as a petition candidate for much of the 1990s and Billy Keyserling, the current Mayor of Beaufort, won a term in 1994 as a petition candidate (Rep. Shannon Erickson presently holds the seat). While Cromer regularly came out on top in three-way contests against Republicans and Democrats, Keyserling was first elected as a Democrat in 1992, barely defeated a Republican and didn't seek another term in 1996.

In looking around the state, we see tough fights worth watching in House Districts 3, 26, 39, 53, 56, 75, 78, 97 and 105:
House 3: Pickens County

In June, incumbent GOP Rep. B.R. Skelton lost his re-election primary to Ed Harris – and then he got Harris disqualified from the ballot, winning the nomination by default, only to face Harris again as a petition candidate.

Skelton has enjoyed a modest financial advantage over Harris in this re-match, but has suffered greatly in the face of repudiation of his candidacy by local and state Republicans. Negative publicity over challenging the will of the voters in his district has also set in. While it’s hard to tell how deeply these factors have motivated voters to go beyond the usual straight-ticket voting, it’s been enough to help Harris rally considerable support for his candidacy.

Nobody’s shown us any polling on this race, but there’s no reason to think that either side couldn’t win this one.

House 26: York County

The fast-growing York County gained a new district, which redistricting plans put in Fort Mill, and is one of several which has no candidate listed on a major-party ballot. In this race, Raye Felder, a petition candidate who was initially running as a Republican, faces Libertarian Jeremy Walters.

Local and state Republicans have circled their wagons around Felder and let voters know she has their support. This should be enough to ensure she wins, but with many voters likely to single-punch the master party button, the total number of votes cast in this race may be low enough to make it an interesting contest.

In the end, Raye Felder will win this one and join the GOP House Caucus.

House 39: Lexington and Saluda Counties

The second time is likely to be the charm for Republican Ralph Kennedy, who forced the now-retiring incumbent into a run-off two years ago. He’ll face petition candidate Phil Perry, who was disqualified from seeking the seat as a Republican.

Kennedy made it through the primary and has been an aggressive fundraiser, proving he’s leaving nothing to chance this time around. His profile as a school board member in the district hasn’t hurt him either.

Perry is known for his work for Clemson extension service, but that won’t be enough to overcome Kennedy in this race, which Kennedy should win comfortably.

House 53: Chesterfield and Lancaster Counties

Ted Vick has represented this House seat for nearly a decade. After withdrawing from the Congressional race following a DUI arrest, his decision to also file for re-election to his state House seat allowed him to fall back and focus his efforts on re-election, where he faces Republican Richie Yow and petition candidate Phil Powell, who was disqualified from running in the Democratic primary.

Vick has continued to draw questions about his fundraising in the media and polling data we’ve seen indicates that his support levels are much lower than they should be given the district he’s in, as well as how long he’s been in the House. His negative numbers are also fairly high and signal that the negative publicity which sank his Congressional candidacy followed him home – and stuck. This has encouraged Republicans to come in and support Yow aggressively.

The other part of this equation is Powell, who is Chair of the Cheraw Chamber of Commerce, comes with plenty of credibility and is bleeding off support from Vick’s Democratic base. He’ll probably find it difficult to garner enough votes to make into second place, but he could help pull down Vick enough for Yow to pull off a first-place finish in the race.

In this strange race, any outcome is possible.

House 56: Horry County

As it has in the 1991 and 2001 redistricting cycles, Horry County gains yet another state House seat, this time taking District 56 from Chesterfield and Darlington Counties. In this race, Dennis DiSabato and Mike Ryhal, both bumped off the GOP ballot, are facing off as petition candidates, setting up one of the state’s few legislative contests with no candidates listed on a major-party ballot.

This race has taken plenty of strange turns and there’s a lot of bad blood between the two camps, for this seat which is centered around the Carolina Forest development, a large new development that wasn’t around ten years ago and is flexing it’s political muscle. There are lots of egos and personalities on both sides – who we’ve heard from by the truckload.

Where this race goes, nobody really knows, but we’ll be glad when it’s over – as will a lot of people in Horry County.

House 75: Richland County

Outgoing House Judiciary Chair Jim Harrison was elected to this seat in a special election after the former incumbent was nailed in Lost Trust. Twenty years later, he’s moving on and the state’s most expensive House race ever has broken out to fill the seat. Republican Kirkman Finlay, a former Columbia City Councilman and owner of the well-known Doc’s Barbeque restaurant faces Democratic attorney Joe McCulloch.

Together, both candidates have raised over $310,000 for the seat. Finlay had to fund a primary campaign but has out-raised McCulloch by a healthy margin overall and the candidates went into the last weeks roughly even in cash-on-hand.

This House district includes the Shandon area, whose residents know how to split their ballots and do it often. The winner of this race can’t count on prevailing election winds to deliver victory – they’ll have to win the race on their own merits. From what we’ve seen, Finlay is pushing hard and should come out on top in this race.

House 78: Richland County

This House district, anchored in Forest Acres, was once one of the GOP’s safest House districts. These days, it’s a swing district where Republican incumbent Joan Brady is battling Democrat Beth Bernstein in one of the state’s most expensive legislative battles.

Both candidates have raised over $100,000 for the seat and Bernstein is throwing some hard punches to try to catch up to Brady, who we’ve been told has a slight edge in the race.

Republicans remember when this seat gave Democratic Senator Joel Lourie his political start, when he toppled the brother of then-SCGOP Chair Henry McMaster to take the seat. Brady took the seat back when Lourie moved up to the Senate and Republicans are doing all they can to prevent the seat from flipping once more. Like Lourie, Bernstein is part of the area’s well-organized Jewish community, which is giving her a solid base of support.

Both candidates are well-known and they’re going all out to win this race in the bank, the air and the ground. Unless Brady trips, expect her to hold on to the seat.

House 97: Colleton and Dorchester Counties

This Dorchester County-based seat has turned over more than any other legislative seat in recent history. The GOP took it in 2000, lost it in 2002, regained it in 2004, and lost it in 2006. Those races and another in 2008 were won and lost by margins of just several hundred votes. This year, Democratic incumbent Patsy Knight faces Republican Ed Carter in a redrawn district which had several Democratic-leaning precincts cut out and replaced with more Republican turf in the Summerville area and rural Colleton County.

Two years ago, George Bailey, the Republican who Knight defeated in 2006 and 2008, made his political comeback by taking the Dorchester County Council seat that covers much of Knight’s state House district. While it remains to be seen if his return is a prelude to Republicans taking back the state’s most-frequently flipping legislative seat, the new district is noticeably less friendly to Knight and Republicans are doing all they can to win.

House 105: Horry County

Incumbent George Hearn’s tenure in the House was rather short and when he opted not to seek another term this year, six Republicans filed to run for this Conway-area seat. When all six Republicans were knocked off the ballot, five of them returned as petition candidates, setting up a race like none other anywhere in the state.

Of the five candidates, only two have raised decent sums of money for the race: Blake Hewitt, a newcomer and Bert Von Hermann, who lost a primary challenge to former Rep. Thad Viers two years ago. Kevin Hardee, a former member of Horry County Council, brings some name recognition to the race as well.

In this kind of race, first place is all one needs to win and that could require as little as twenty-five or thirty percent of the vote, thus anyone could win it and nobody’s shown us polling data which suggests any one candidate has the lead.

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