Harpootlian’s Senate seat is lost, while the “sister senators” and Freedom Caucus gain ground

In Columbia, South Carolina, Travis Bell captured an image of Sen. Dick Harpootlian during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on March 15, 2022.

In one of South Carolina’s most closely-watched Democratic contests, Midlands voters have made their decision to oust the former state Democratic Party chairman, who gained national attention as the lawyer to Alex Murdaugh. The results of the election came in on Tuesday.

The night didn’t bode well for some GOP incumbents, unfortunately. In the House, challengers aligned with the hardline Freedom Caucus managed to oust several Republicans. This result may lead to an increase in GOP vs. GOP conflicts in that chamber. Among the ousted incumbents was a long-time Upstate chairman.

The Senate winners have paved the way for the Republican Party to bring back the issue of an all-out ban on abortion next year.

Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, emerged victorious in a closely contested battle against Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Columbia, to secure the redrawn Senate district in the Columbia area. The Senate seat was previously held by Sen. Nikki Setzler, the state’s longest serving legislator, who recently announced his retirement after an impressive 48 years in the upper chamber.

After the census, district lines were redrawn, resulting in the relocation of the seat to Calhoun County. This area has been represented by Ott and his father, former House Minority Leader Harry Ott, for a combined total of 26 years.

In downtown Columbia, anti-abortion laws are a huge concern for Democrats in solid blue neighborhoods. Harpootlian made sure to call out Russell Ott for his history of voting with Republicans on these laws.

In an attempt to discredit Ott, he was portrayed as an inconsistent politician. Back in February 2021, Ott was in favor of a law passed by the Legislature, which prohibited abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy. However, in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in 2022, Ott has since voted against Republican-led abortion bans. In addition to this, he has actively supported initiatives to improve women’s access to birth control.

In response to Harpootlian’s representation, Ott, a popular farmer from Calhoun County, criticized him for not representing the entire district effectively. Ott called out Harpootlian’s involvement in defending Murdaugh, who was ultimately found guilty of murdering his wife and son. This case caused Harpootlian to be away from the Statehouse for extended periods of time. Ott also disapproved of Harpootlian’s use of colorful language, a trait that the lawyer was known for.

According to Harpootlian, his campaign was able to achieve its targeted number of votes in Richland and Lexington counties, where he has a strong presence. However, Ott’s hometown, Calhoun, witnessed a greater turnout than anticipated, which worked in his favor. Ott’s popularity in rural areas helped him secure a victory over Harpootlian by a margin of 120 votes.

According to Harpootlian, the people of Calhoun County have made it clear that they want a senator, as evidenced by their votes from yesterday.

During a press conference held on Wednesday morning, he acknowledged Ott’s victory and expressed his support for him in the upcoming November election.

Harpootlian acknowledged that they underwent a process the previous day which he ultimately lost. He emphasized that the process was effective and that he has no intention of accusing anyone of theft nor is he throwing a tantrum. Furthermore, he clarified that he has complete faith in the system.

In 2018, the senator won a special election and succeeded in flipping a Senate seat that had been held by a Republican for several decades. He has also served in various political roles such as a seat on Richland County Council, solicitor of the Fifth Circuit (which covers Richland and Kershaw counties), and two separate terms as the state Democratic Party chairman.

His Senate seat was officially relocated to the Lowcountry due to the post-census redistricting.

According to Harpootlian, he does not have any definite plans for the future, aside from managing his law firm. It’s worth noting that his wife serves as the ambassador to Slovenia.

The 75-year-old made a joke about how yesterday’s tragedy had cut short a promising political future before it could even blossom.

It’s still uncertain who Ott will be up against in the purple district during the November election. The Republican nominees, Jason Guerry, a construction company owner, and Chris Smith, a retired real estate agent who is known for his unwavering conservative values, will need to participate in a run-off to determine the final candidate.

Pulling to the right

On the other hand, in the Upstate region, candidates with far-right affiliations and support from the House Freedom Caucus managed to seize control of three seats that were previously held by incumbent members from the GOP majority caucus.

The Republican leaders attempted to reduce the size of the caucus that has been criticizing them both in the chamber and on social media. However, the outcome of the primaries was contrary to their expectations, as it led to an increase in their numbers.

In a closely contested election, Adam Duncan, a wrestling coach from Seneca and a Freedom Caucus backed challenger, almost unseated the 30-year veteran Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Seneca. The difference between the two candidates was less than 60 votes. Despite not having held any previous public office, Duncan gave Sandifer a tough competition.

For 16 years, Sandifer has held the position of chairman of the House Labor, Commerce, and Industry Committee.

Thomas Gilreath, a former National Guardsman and farmer from Belton who operates a grading and paving company, defeated Assistant Majority Leader Jay West, R-Belton, in the recent election. West, who had served for eight years, was removed from his position.

Phillip Bowers defeated Rep. Jerry Carter, R-Clemson, in the election.

In 2020, Carter emerged victorious in the elections, defeating Bowers, a former Pickens County School Board member, in the GOP primary. It is worth mentioning that this seat has traditionally been held by a moderate Republican. Moving forward, Bowers will be contesting against Democrat Eunice Lehmacher in the upcoming November elections.

House Majority Leader David Hiott acknowledged the loss of three valuable members, attributing it to the nature of politics. He stated, “Sometimes you have turnover when there are elections, and we hated to lose them.”

R-Pickens representative Hiott acknowledges the recent wins by the Freedom Caucus, but believes that it won’t have a significant impact on the House Majority Caucus. He respects the decision of the voters who chose to remove the incumbents in those districts. Hiott also sees the possibility of Republicans gaining a few seats in the upcoming November elections.

In regards to the Freedom Caucus, he stated that although they may have gained one or two members, it doesn’t alter the fact that they are still in the minority.

Rep. Neal Collins, R-Easley, managed to retain his seat in the majority caucus despite facing challengers from the Freedom Caucus. In fact, he won by the widest margin in recent history, garnering nearly 55% of the vote. Among the dozen other Republicans who also faced similar challenges, they too managed to hold on to their seats.

The ultra-conservative caucus not only gained three Upstate seats but also managed to secure 15 other seats. Additionally, there are still two contests going to a run-off where Freedom Caucus candidates are in the race. This implies that the group has the potential to expand its membership to 20 members.

According to political consultant and founding member of the chamber’s Freedom Caucus, Rep. R.J. May, the victory was claimed against establishment Republicans in several campaigns.

He stated that the voters in South Carolina made their voices heard through their votes, indicating their desire for a more conservative and efficient government. He further mentioned that they are tired of the conventional politics of moderate Republicans and liberal Democrats who have been in power.

In South Carolina, the primaries are the deciding factor for most races, and a majority of districts that are won by candidates from the Freedom Caucus tend to lean heavily towards the Republican party. Additionally, May is considering the possibility of expanding the caucus to include the state Senate.

He declined to reveal any names but mentioned that they are currently in talks with several candidates who they hope will join their effort. The team will be holding conversations with them to explore the possibility of making this a bicameral effort.

Governor Henry McMaster made a bold move by endorsing candidates in Statehouse GOP primaries, marking the first time he has done so since taking office. Unfortunately, all three challengers he supported in their bid against Freedom Caucus members were unsuccessful. Even some of the incumbents that he endorsed, such as West and Sandifer, were unable to secure their seats.

In a statement released on Wednesday, Governor’s spokesperson Brandon Charochak expressed confidence in the Governor’s working relationship with the General Assembly. According to Charochak, the Governor’s past success with the Assembly gives no indication of any changes to come, as demonstrated by the returns from last night’s election.

Senate hopefuls

Several House members attempted to secure a Senate seat, including Ott. However, they failed to garner the required majority of 50%-plus-one votes to secure a win. The outcome of these races will be determined in the upcoming June 26 run-offs.

The contest for the seat left by Democrat-turned-Independent Sen. Mia McLeod in Richland County has put Rep. Ivory Thigpen, D-Columbia, in direct competition with Richland County councilman Overture Walker. The county has a strong Democratic presence.

In the upcoming election, Rep. Jason Elliott, a Republican from Greenville, will be competing against Ben Carper, a real estate broker and former teacher who has garnered support from the chancellor of Bob Jones University, a conservative Christian college located in Greenville. Carper has stated that he intends to collaborate with the Freedom Caucus, as reported by the Greenville News.

It is worth mentioning the races that feature South Carolina’s female GOP senators.

Last year, a group of female senators within the chamber, who referred to themselves as “sister senators,” unanimously opposed the six-week abortion ban. It is worth noting that at the time, there were only five members in the group, but a sixth member was sworn in this year. Despite ultimately not succeeding in blocking the final version of the ban, they were able to play a significant role in defeating the near-total ban that had been proposed by House Republicans. This proposed ban would have outlawed abortions from the moment a pregnancy could be medically detected.

However, the decision to vote in favor of impeachment also resulted in primary challenges for all three Republican female senators. Unfortunately, Senator Penry Gustafson, R-Camden, a freshman in the Senate, was defeated by her challenger.

The race between Charleston Senator Sandy Senn and Johns Island House member, Representative Matt Leber, is intensely disputed, as the candidates are separated by less than 1% of the vote. The situation has led to an automatic recount.

In the recent primary race, Sen. Katrina Shealy, who is the only chairwoman in the Senate, came out on top among three contenders. However, the Lexington Republican fell short of securing the victory outright and is now headed for a runoff. Her opponent in the runoff is Carlisle Kennedy, the son of former state Rep. Ralph Kennedy, who was defeated in a previous GOP primary back in 2016.

As he delivered his concession speech, Harpotlian took the time to acknowledge the “sister senators,” expressing his disappointment over one’s defeat and the uncertainty that two others still face.

He commented that this is a significant indication of the current state of affairs in the Republican primary.

Comeback attempts

Former legislators looking to return to office were also present in South Carolina’s primaries.

Former Senator Lee Bright, a Republican from Roebuck, is vying to regain his Spartanburg area seat. However, he will have to face off against Representative Roger Nutt, a fellow Republican from Moore, who is also running for a Senate seat, in a run-off election.

Kirkman Finlay, a former representative, emerged as the winner of the Republican primary. This sets the stage for a 2022 election rematch against the current incumbent, freshman Representative Heather Bauer, who is a Democrat from Columbia. On the other hand, former representative Vic Dabney, a Republican from Camden, experienced a resounding defeat in his attempt to regain his seat.

Former Representative Jerry Govan, a Democrat from Orangeburg, is in a run-off with Johnny Felder as they both compete to fill Ott’s seat as he heads to the Senate.

Felder is seeking to fill the position previously occupied by his father, former Representative John Gressette Felder, who held the seat for 24 years. He is also the great-nephew of the late state Senator Marion Gressette, who is the namesake of the Senate’s office building located on the Statehouse grounds and who served as one of the longest-serving legislators in the state’s history.

The SC Daily Gazette reported on the recent political changes in South Carolina. The post titled “Harpootlian loses Senate seat, ‘sister senators’ lose ground and Freedom Caucus expands” outlined the various shifts in the state’s political landscape.

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