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Non-white turnout in SC midterm was the lowest in a generation. Why did voters stay home?


Democrats on the national level enjoyed remarkable success in November’s midterm elections, strongly outperforming expectations to register one of the best showings for a sitting president’s party in modern history. In South Carolina, it was a different story. Republicans swept statewide elections by wide margins — the 17-point spread in the governor’s race was the largest in 22 years — and flipped eight seats in the South Carolina House to cement a supermajority for the first time since Reconstruction. The incoming House class is more male-heavy and less diverse, with four fewer women and six fewer Black members.

As reasons for the Democrats’ shellacking continue to be discussed and debated, one explanation has become abundantly clear: Black voters — the core of the party — stayed home.

Non-white voter turnout — the State Election Commission only distinguishes between white and non-white voters — was the lowest it’s been in at least a generation and more than 30% lower than white voter turnout, according to election participation data released Dec. 15.

Only 390,000 non-white voters — roughly 35% of those registered — cast ballots in the midterm.

That’s a nearly 20% drop in non-white turnout compared to 2018, despite the fact that 170,000 more non-white residents were registered to vote this year.

Viewed another way, non-white voters make up 30% of all registered South Carolina voters, but comprised less than 23% of voters in November’s midterms. That 7 percentage point difference between registered voters and participating voters is the largest in a midterm election since at least 1986, as far back as online state election data goes.

“It’s pretty clear that these folks just weren’t motivated by what they were hearing,” said Lachlan McIntosh, a Democratic political consultant and former executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party. “They didn’t go out and vote Republican, they decided to just not vote at all.”


There are myriad possible explanations for woeful non-white turnout, but chief among them are ineffective messaging and lack of voter engagement, Democratic strategists said.

While focusing on abortion rights may have helped motivate white suburban voters — the only seat Democrats flipped was in suburban Richland County where Heather Bauer made reproductive rights the focal point of her campaign — the message failed to connect with rural voters and voters of color, strategists said.

“Reproductive freedom may have been a conversation that worked in a lot of places. It did not work in South Carolina,” South Carolina-based Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright said. “I don’t think you can make one single issue the centerpiece of your campaign.”

McIntosh agreed that abortion rights and issues like legalizing marijuana and eliminating the state income tax, which Democrat Joe Cunningham made central to his gubernatorial campaign, were fundamentally misaligned with the interests of the party’s non-white voting base.

“If you’re struggling to put dinner on the table, you don’t have the luxury sometimes to worry about issues like that,” McIntosh said. “It’s sometimes about what’s right in front of you,” such as soaring food and gas prices and rising crime rates, he added.

“If we want to be a big-tent party,” McIntosh continued, “we have to communicate to the entire coalition, not just part of it.”

Rather than making assumptions about Black voters and their politics, Seawright said the party needs to step up its Black voter outreach and make a concerted effort to truly understand what issues its base cares about.

“I think we have to get off the interstate and go down the dirt road and start meeting voters where they are,” he said. “Showing up and asking them what’s important instead of telling them what’s important. Talking to them, not at them.”

While South Carolina’s racially diverse Democratic voter base has made it a frontrunner to become the party’s first presidential primary state in 2024, Democrats have not historically prioritized early and ongoing engagement with voters of color, said Christale Spain, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s senior advisor for Black engagement. Oftentimes, she said, campaigns have focused on courting “persuadable” voters, while leaving Black voter outreach until the end of a race.

If the party wants to boost African American turnout, it must start viewing Black voters as persuasion targets and invest in them early, she said.

“All the polling suggests that Black voters feel like they’re being taken for granted,” Spain said. “They feel like Democrats just expect them to turn out and vote for them.”


In South Carolina, where Democrats operate with limited resources, campaigns sometimes must choose between turning out their base or targeting persuadable voters, McIntosh said.

Cunningham’s campaign only had enough money to communicate one set of messages, he said, and it chose persuasion.

That decision, some strategists argue, may have proven costly in several down-ballot races that Black Democratic incumbents lost to Republican challengers.

“Democrats can’t win without investing in Black communities,” said Brandon Upson, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party Black Caucus. “Once the Black vote drops below a certain point, we don’t just lose statewide, but we lose in critical local races as well.”

Tyler Jones, a senior Cunningham adviser, acknowledged the underfunded campaign had been forced to make tough decisions, but expressed no regrets about where it had allocated its scarce resources and rejected the notion it had neglected or failed to appeal to Black voters.

Cunningham “was everywhere,” he said, and worked harder than any candidate he’d ever seen. Between his calls to eliminate the state income tax, expand Medicaid, raise teacher pay and expunge marijuana convictions, Cunningham gave Black voters plenty of reasons to turn out, Jones argued.

Ideally, he said, the campaign would have targeted all voters, both in their communities and over the airwaves. But absent the ability to invest heavily in field organizers, campaign coordination, political mailings and other essential aspects of a winning campaign, it chose to spend virtually all of its money on television ads aimed at persuading voters who were on the fence.

“We had two choices,” Jones said. “We could try to win this race or we could just try to get 42%-43% and call it a day. We were going for a victory and that means persuading voters, it means winning independents and getting enough Republican crossover voters to win.”

There’s evidence Cunningham and other Democrats made inroads in moderate, mostly white suburban districts, but it wasn’t nearly enough to make up for the ground lost elsewhere.

“You saw a very large number of excited white progressives vote,” McIntosh said. “But this is South Carolina, and that’s not going to win you anything outside of Columbia and Charleston. The party just wasn’t able to do the full package.”


South Carolina Democrats weren’t alone in their failure to turn out Black voters in the midterm.

Georgia, North Carolina and Louisiana also reported major chasms between Black and white voter turnout rates. It will be months before conclusive national data on racial differences in voter turnout is available, but the early findings point to tepid Black turnout being a national phenomenon.

Jones pointed to the underwhelming Black turnout in many states, including ones with well-known and well-funded Black Democratic candidates, to absolve Cunningham of the criticism that his messaging and strategy had been largely responsible for Black voters in South Carolina sitting out the midterms.

“If (Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate) Stacey Abrams and (Georgia Democratic Sen.) Raphael Warnock could not get Black turnout to where it needed to be with all the money in the world, then that tells me it wasn’t possible this year,” he said.

The reason for the decline in Black voter participation nationwide is unclear.

Political analysts have speculated that Black working class voters may feel betrayed by the Democratic Party’s failure to deliver on years of promises or question its commitment to combat rising white supremacy. Some wonder whether Black voter turnout was buoyed by the rise of Barack Obama and is now simply returning to the pre-Obama baseline.

Upson attributes depressed turnout to a growing group of young Black voters empowered by the Black Lives Matter movement to demand more from politicians. These voters, he said, are sitting out elections or, in some cases, voting Republican, when Democratic candidates don’t speak to their central concerns.

“This new generation of Black folks that are coming up, they different,” he said. “And I love it. Because we should be working to earn every vote.”

Whatever the explanation, local strategists say the drop in Black voter participation is more acute in a state like South Carolina, where Democratic resources are scarce and competitive races few and far between.

“We have not had enough victories for people who want to donate or are able to donate to understand why they should still donate,” Spain said.

Years of losing have definitely taken a toll, McIntosh acknowledged.

South Carolina Democrats are in the frustrating position of being competitive enough statewide to avoid getting blown out most years, but not competitive enough to actually win, or even come particularly close, he said.

Even Jaime Harrison, who in 2020 raised more money than any U.S. Senate candidate in history, lost by double digits in his bid to unseat Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.

For many wealthy Democratic donors, Harrison’s defeat was a sign that Democrats couldn’t win statewide in South Carolina, Jones said.

“When you raise that much money and still get beat pretty handily, donors are going to pull back in the next election,” he said. “If we had a dollar for every time a donor said, ‘If Jaime couldn’t do it, then it can’t be done,’ we would have had enough money to win the election.”


With Democrats in South Carolina likely at a considerable fundraising disadvantage for the foreseeable future, the party can’t afford to keep losing winnable races, McIntosh said.

Four of the Republican pickups in the House this year were the predictable product of redistricting changes enacted by the GOP-controlled Legislature. But the other four were races in which Republican candidates beat Black incumbents in blue-leaning districts.

Three of the flips occurred in majority-minority districts, where nearly half of the voters are African American.

McIntosh attributed those losses to the party’s failure to invest in those races and, in some cases, candidates taking their victories for granted.

“They’d never had to run a real campaign before and a lot of them had never run against a Republican before,” he said. “They were so used to the action being in the primary that when this happened they just didn’t know what to do.”

South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson accepted full responsibility for the party’s defeats and its inability to raise the money needed to help under-resourced incumbents.

“Success has many fathers, failure but one,” he said. “All of the blame and responsibility of that falls to me.”

Robertson said he was confident Democrats would learn from their throttling and vowed to do whatever it takes — including reevaluating the party’s strategy with Black voters, whom he said could no longer be treated as a monolithic voting bloc — to ensure Democrats are better prepared for success in future elections.

“We’ve got to go back to the grassroots,” he said. “Find a message that cuts across urban and rural settings and find candidates who will invest in African American voters, female voters and in developing an infrastructure that works across all bounds.”

Candidate quality and preparation will be crucial going forward, said Robertson, who stressed that future candidates must demonstrate they understand and can relate to residents in their districts, even as demographics shift, and be equipped to run modern campaigns. “We’re going to have to require candidates to go through some type of campaign training, similar to the type of training they get when they become freshman legislators,” he said.

The days of Democrats being able to coast to victory in majority-minority districts are over, party strategists said.

Incumbents in historically safe districts will need to recommit to raising money, even in off years, and modernize their communication strategies to reach more voters, McIntosh said.

With a shot to win back multiple S.C. House seats, and possibly a Charleston-area Senate seat in 2024, he said Democrats would need to be laser-focused if they want to capitalize on their limited opportunities.

“We can’t just sit around and hope it happens,” said McIntosh, who supports building a permanent operation to maximize base voter turnout. “Because what we saw in November was a total collapse.”

Upson agreed that the party’s voter outreach operation needs an overhaul and said the lack of a coordinated, volunteer-based effort to engage voters was the primary reason Black voter turnout suffered. Unless the party revamps its outreach infrastructure, he said, candidate strength and messaging won’t make a difference.

“If you’re not investing in grassroots organizing, getting in the trenches, talking to the people,” Upson said, “you’re not going to have a snowball’s chance in hell of even coming close to being competitive, let alone winning.”


Robertson, as party chairman, has naturally come under criticism in the wake of Democrats’ disastrous showing in the midterms. In a recent interview with the Charleston Post and Courier, state Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, asserted the party needed a “major leadership shakeup,” and compared Democratic Party leaders to the coaches of an underachieving college football team. At this point, however, no one has announced a plan to challenge Robertson’s chairmanship. Upson, the Black Caucus chairman who worked on Tom Steyer’s 2020 presidential campaign and managed Democrat Phil Noble’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign, said he’d been asked to run against Robertson but hadn’t yet decided if he would. “Personally, I absolutely love Trav,” said Upson, who credits Robertson with teaching him a great deal about campaigning and what winning campaigns look like. “But as in any organization that’s suffered this many losses, over and over and over again, there are folks who are calling for us to revisit what our leadership looks like in our state.” Robertson, who has chaired the state party since 2017, said he wouldn’t make a decision about his future until early February, after the Democratic National Committee decides whether South Carolina will lead off the party’s presidential primary calendar. It’s easy to blame somebody and call for change for change’s sake, Robertson said. More difficult, he said, is working through challenges in order to find solutions. “That’s what we’ve got to decide as a party,” he said. “Whether or not we’re going to do that.” This story was originally published December 31, 2022 5:00 AM. ZAK KOESKE Zak Koeske is a state government and politics reporter for The State. Before joining The State in 2020, Zak covered education, government and policing issues in the Chicago area. He’s also written for publications in his native Pittsburgh and the New York/New Jersey area.

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