By Paul Gable
Money is considered the magic ingredient in political campaigns. If you have enough of it, you can’t lose.
Mark Lazarus had a 10 to 1 money advantage over Johnny Gardner in their recent campaign for Horry County Council Chairman. Yet, even with such an overwhelming money advantage, Lazarus snatched defeat from the jaws of victory again.
The Lazarus campaign had Walter Whetsell as its consultant. Whetsell was Tom Rice’s campaign consultant since Rice first ran for Congress in 2012.
After Rice voted to impeach President Donald Trump, Whetsell told media that a week in politics is a lifetime and voters would forget about the Rice vote in a couple of weeks. What actually happened was voters remembered the Rice vote for 18 months and voted him out of office two weeks ago.
Four years ago, Lazarus calling the county police and fire first responders “Thugs” put the final nail in his coffin denying him reelection as county chairman.
This time, a terrible campaign strategy, that had Lazarus trying to deny the “Thug” comment as well as the rest of his history as county chairman, was an affront to the voters. The voters didn’t forget Lazarus’ history over the four years he was out of office.
Lazarus pushed a message that did not reflect the reality of his five and one-half years as county chairman. Then, the campaign tried to go negative on Gardner in the last two weeks, which backfired because the voters know Gardner has little to go negative against in his four years as chairman.
It didn’t help that Lazarus said, “Vote for Tom Rice” at the beginning of this campaign season in a video posted on the Rice campaign site inexorably tying Lazarus and Rice in voters’ minds.
The voters had considerably longer memories and were much less forgiving than the campaign strategist gave them credit for.
And Lazarus could not get away from his ties to the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce Cabal, which poured the money into the Lazarus campaign coffers, because the Cabal expected Lazarus to produce for its members if elected.
Things like dedicating county money for Interstate 73, eliminating impact fees that help pay for infrastructure for new construction and removing limitations on development that had been passed under Gardner during his first term were all goals for the Chamber Cabal if Lazarus was elected.
It was common knowledge, west of the waterway, that Lazarus had struck a deal with Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune to run for county council chairman again rather than challenge her in last year’s Myrtle Beach mayoral race. The two of them apparently planned to serve the Chamber Cabal as some sort of self-possessed ‘dynamic duo’.
Another move that backfired was having council member Johnny Vaught enter the county chairman’s primary in an effort to draw votes from Gardner. It worked to some extent but not enough to keep Gardner from a runoff with Lazarus. Now Vaught is out of his seat on council with no political future.
And whoever had the idea of having Vaught (after he exited the primary), Luke Rankin, Case Brittain, Heather Crawford, Dennis DiSabato, Bill Howard, Gary Loftus, Bethune and Marilyn Hatley all endorse Lazarus has no idea about the voters in Horry County. You couldn’t gather a group of politicians more tied to the Chamber Cabal than that group.
Gardner had a single campaign strategy – run on his record of keeping the promises he made to voters four years ago. When you say you are going to do something, then actually do it, it’s hard to beat.
A primary runoff is a much different animal than the first round of the primary. There the goal is to get your voters back to the polls in the runoff. Gardner’s campaign was successful in getting his voters back to the polls.
Gardner lost only 743 votes from his first round total even though only 47% of the voters in the first round of the primary returned to vote in the runoff.
The Lazarus campaign failed miserably. Lazarus lost 7,295 votes in the runoff from his total in the first round. All that money spent and no victory to show for it. As Ricky Ricardo used to say to Lucy, Lazarus and Whetsell “got some splainin’ to do” to the Chamber Cabal.
Looking at the breakdown of voting in the primary runoff, east of the waterway went to Lazarus and west of the waterway went to Gardner, defining the divide among county voters. As more and more people come to live west of the waterway, the Chamber Cabal influence on elected officials will decline further.
There is now some talk that Lazarus is considering challenging the election results. Even if he were successful in having the election overturned, though there is no defining thing he can point to as a reason, the result would be a special election for county chairman in nine months or so.
Such a move would be seen as sour grapes by the voters west of the waterway and be a logistical nightmare for a Lazarus campaign. In a special election, it is even more important to get your voters to the polls, something the Lazarus campaign demonstrated it was unable to do in the runoff.
Wasting all that money just to get defeated by a larger margin than the primary runoff while getting labeled a “sore loser” would eliminate any slim hope Lazarus has of ever running for office again.
The voters did not raise Lazarus from the political dead in this go around. There is no reason to expect the result would be any different in a special election against Gardner.