By Paul Gable
Defeating an incumbent politician used to be a most difficult undertaking in South Carolina politics. Now it’s almost becoming the norm in Horry County.
Two out of three incumbents on the ballot lost in Myrtle Beach last fall. An incumbent fell to a write-in candidate in Surfside Beach earlier this year.
The latest round of primaries on June 12th saw a state legislator and a long-time school board member go down to opposition. Bill Howard was able to just hold off challenger Dean Pappas in the only contested Republican primary that went to an incumbent. The irony of that race is that newly elected Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune came out late for Pappas and her endorsement may have hurt Pappas in the final days because Bethune has quickly sided with what is considered the establishment in Myrtle Beach even though she was a candidate for “change” in the fall.
Challenger William Bailey took out incumbent Greg Duckworth in the Republican primary for S.C. House District 104. Challenger Helen Smith defeated incumbent Pam Timms in the Horry County School Board District 6 Republican primary. Smith is a former school board chairman in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, but probably half of today’s registered voters weren’t living in the county when she last left office so she qualifies as a change candidate.
In the one contested Democratic Primary in the county, county council member Harold Phillips defeated challenger Lee Sherman in county council District 7. However, Sherman is an almost perpetual candidate for the District 7 council seat dating back to the 1980’s, so that race can’t be seen as a change candidate challenging an incumbent.
The biggest upset was incumbent Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus falling to challenger Johnny Gardner in a close election that will be talked about for a long time. Gardner’s victory ranks up there in county political history with John Jenrette’s defeat of 17 term incumbent John McMillan for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. House of Representatives Sixth District in 1972.
It was reported to Grand Strand Daily that, at his first fundraiser, Lazarus predicted he would carry 80% of the vote against Gardner.
Lazarus received the endorsements of three coastal mayors, Bethune, Marilyn Hatley and Bob Childs. He received the endorsements of his 11 fellow council members, most of the members of the county’s state legislative delegation and U.S. House member Tom Rice. His campaign was run by three incumbents – S.C. House members Heather Ammons Crawford and Russell Fry and incumbent council member Cam Crawford.
The Lazarus loss is probably a good indication of how out of touch Lazarus and his many incumbent endorsers are with the voters they supposedly represent. The voters of Horry County are tired of the ‘Good Ole’ Boys’ controlling the political agenda while their needs are ignored.
The campaign itself was poorly run at best as it failed to connect with the voters. An old fashioned combination of direct mail pieces, radio and television ads and robo-calls touted accomplishments by Lazarus that the voters knew were not true. He made some appearances at live events and sent proxies to others to speak on his behalf.
Fashioning themselves as #TeamHorry, the Lazarus supporters misread the mood of the voters and how many were part of the team.
Meanwhile Gardner was engaging voters throughout the county in a number of live appearances and his campaign used social media very effectively to continue discussion of the issues that were important to voters.
The single most memorable event in the campaign was Lazarus walking out of a candidates’ forum in the Burgess Community while being asked hard questions by county first responders. The next day, campaign consultant Heather Ammons Crawford called these same first responders “union thugs” and Lazarus doubled down on that comment by referring to the first responders as “union thugs” and “thugs” several more times in the campaign’s closing days. Videos of the Burgess event and the Lazarus and Ammons Crawford comments went viral on social media. Stupid is the only word that comes to mind.
During the several days after the election when missing votes were found by the county Election Commission and it appeared the results of the House District 104 and council chairman races may be appealed, Horry County Republican Chairman Dreama Perdue did herself and the county Republican Party no favors by asking Rep. Alan Clemmons to be present at election commission proceedings.
The party is supposed to remain neutral in primary elections. Clemmons was a highly partisan supporter of both Duckworth and Lazarus during the campaign. Perdue claimed Clemmons was present at her request but for what purpose remained unclear in her explanations.
Supporters of Gardner and Bailey viewed his active participation in the proceedings as possible tampering by the party with a view to finding grounds for challenges. Perception is reality in politics and the perception among average voters was the party was working for Lazarus and Duckworth.
The lessons to be learned from the recent election results in Horry County are that change is in the air with the voters; the Republican Party is but a shell of what it should be with little credibility and incumbents are not the popular choice of voters when challengers are found.
Look for John Warren to defeat incumbent Gov. Henry McMaster in Tuesday’s Republican Primary runoff. McMaster’s support statewide mirrors Lazarus’ support in the county – party hacks and ‘good ole’ boys’.
Warren has much more contact with the frustrations of average voters. Just sayin’.