As the dust settles on the 2012 elections in South Carolina, one of the most noted outcomes is the near-total defeat of the so-called “reform” candidates who challenged a number of GOP legislators.
The only candidate who prevailed was Katrina Shealy, who ran against a Senator who did plenty to sink himself. Others lost handily: Rex Rice went down 2-1 to Senator Larry Martin , Joe Thompson 3-1 to Senator Wes Hayes, and John Steinberger was trounced by House Speaker Bobby Harrell by 4-1. Dee Dee Vaughters got hammered by Senator Nikki Setzler – the only elected Democrat in the Aiken-Lexington region. And the list goes on from there.
These candidates often thumbed their noses at others and refused to work with anyone who wouldn't agree with them lock-stock-and-barrel. Mostly newcomers handicapped by a lack of understanding of the legislative process, they said they'd show the "establishment" something - and by getting their clocks cleaned, I suppose they did just that.
If those who want to change state government want to succeed, they would do well to consider the examples of those who’ve succeeded at winning elections and enacting agendas – and spend more time listening to voters and look at the approaches used by those who’ve actually won elections and implemented reform agendas.
In 1990, the re-election landslide of then-Governor Carroll Campbell set the stage for the last major round of reform in state governments. Voters adopted the statewide grand jury constitutional amendment and the legislature would soon go on to enact a number of reforms Campbell had called for, including restructuring of large parts of state government, passing ethics reform and overhauling the state’s auto insurance laws.
While Governor Campbell and his associates proved they could appeal to voters enough to win elections as a prelude to developing and implementing a reform agenda, this bunch of so-called reformers got swept off the political map on Tuesday so they won’t get to do anything but sit on the sidelines.
These false prophets turned out to be messengers voters didn’t listen to, with messages that voters didn’t like. Nor did they really seem to care that anyone listened to them in the first place, judging by the tone of their rallies, where they took time that would have been better spent talking with voters in districts to yell, demand and accuse anyone in office of being part of the problem – well, just because they were in office.
They demanded campaign ethics reform and accused legislators of blocking it – only to find legislators had convened hearings on campaign ethics reforms.
They blasted any form of economic development incentives – in the middle of a recession when many South Carolinians are desperate to find jobs.
They backed a pack of underfunded candidates, mostly political novices with little money, no political campaign skills or name recognition, instead of trying to concentrate their limited resources and manpower in a few races where it could make a difference.
They accused the House Speaker of covering up campaign finance documentation – except he had shared his receipts with the news media, dousing the claims of a cover-up. In another race, they attacked the Senator who led tort reform in the Senate in favor of trying to helping seat a former House member who had sponsored numerous bills calling for new taxes in the Senate – which many of them said was already filled with fiscally-liberal RINOs.
There was no small irony in how they called for ethics reforms based upon their insistence for more transparency and disclosure about how campaign money was spent while some of their campaigns were heavily-fueled by third-party groups, some of which were unidentified and most of which didn’t disclose where the money they were spending in races came from.
Instead of trying to form a single, united organization, they splintered into numerous groups, some built around single individuals, all competing for attention and power – which is what they said they were opposed to in the first place.
While poll after poll showed voters were concerned about jobs and economic security, as well as taxes and spending, these groups ignored those issues, instead choosing to talk about campaign finance reporting and alleged widespread corruption in state government – which they never could prove.
Instead of trying to build coalitions with long-time Republicans, these false prophets attacked them across the state, running on the GOP ballot where possible and against GOP candidates when they got in the way, by and large giving more liberal Democrats a free ride, and in some cases, helping them prevail over more conservative opponents.
Instead of trying to start small and focus on problems most relevant to voters, which was how Governor Campbell primed the pump for his successful reform agenda, they tried an all-or-nothing approach with no political capital, no credibility, little resources and few political allies. In the end, voters gave them nothing – and gave their targets a renewed lease on political life.
Recently, a poll published by Rasmussen showed the term “tea party” was viewed negatively by more voters than any other political identification, with a 44 percent negative rating, as opposed to just 26 percent positive. It’s not the only poll that has shown the tea party label becoming a toxic brand name, not to mention how Democrats used the term in numerous attack ads over the fall. This might be a time for some serious soul-searching.
While there is an overdue need for major changes to take place, the cause of reform in South Carolina government seems to have been stuck in neutral since the days of Governors Carroll Campbell and David Beasley. These days, press conferences and spreading conspiracy theories seem to be the preferred tool for those who claim to want to change things. The funny things is that, after over a decade of trying this approach, nobody seems to have noticed it doesn’t work. So these so-called reformers keep doing the same thing, with the same results – and nothing changes.
Governor Campbell understood that when making change happen matters more than making headlines, people will come together to make reform possible. It’s the kind of vision this state needs now, but it’s something this year’s false prophets don’t seem to understand.
Hopefully the next crop of political reformers will take themselves and their issues more seriously – as well as learn from the utter failure of this year’s losers – so this state can have the kind of serious discussions that are needed to help bring about the kind of meaningful reforms that are long overdue.