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SC’s GOP ‘sister senators’ among legislators facing primary opposition

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SC’s GOP ‘sister senators’ among legislators facing primary opposition

Apr 01, 2024 | 9:03 pm ET
By Abraham Kenmore Seanna Adcox
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SC’s GOP ‘sister senators’ among legislators facing primary opposition
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The SC Statehouse (File/Mary Ann Chastain/Special to the SC Daily Gazette)

COLUMBIA — Three of South Carolina’s “sister senators” will face GOP primary challengers in June, and the Democrat who last year left the party in frustration announced Monday that she’s not seeking re-election.

It was widely expected that GOP Sens. Katrina Shealy, Sandy Senn, and Penry Gustafson would face opposition from their right flank in their first bid for re-election after they helped defeat a near-total abortion ban and stood firm in fighting the six-week ban that ultimately became law last year.

What was unclear was how many challengers they’d face — and who.

Candidate filings that ended Monday show Shealy, the chamber’s only chairwoman, with the most primary opposition: Carlisle Kennedy and Zoe Warren, both of Lexington. Neither have won elected office before. No Democrat bothered to file for Shealy’s district, which is entirely in Lexington County.

Senn, of Charleston, will face off against freshman Rep. Matt Leber of Johns Island in June. Gustafson, of Camden, will face Allen Blackmon, a Lancaster County councilman since 2018. The winners of those races will each face a Democrat in November. 

All 170 legislative seats are on the ballot this year. But there won’t be a race for more than one-third of them: 13 senators and 44 House incumbents have no opposition whatsoever.

They include Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D-Walterboro, the only “sister senator” guaranteed to return in 2025. Two other GOP House candidates will walk into open seats without a contest.

Challengers who have made headlines beyond the Statehouse include Elias Irizarry of Rock Hill, a Citadel cadet who was sentenced last year to 14 days in jail for participating in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol. Irizarry, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, is challenging three-term incumbent Rep. Randy Ligon of Chester in the June GOP primary. The winner has no opposition in November. 

Twenty legislators aren’t running for re-election, though five state House members are running for the state Senate, and two are running for Congress.

Former legislators

Former legislators trying to return to the Statehouse:

  • Former Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, who lost to GOP Sen. Scott Talley in 2016
  • Former Rep. Vic Dabney, who lost to GOP Rep. Ben Connell in 2022
  • Former Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Columbia, who lost to Democrat Heather Bauer in 2022
  • Former Rep. Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg, who ran unsuccessfully for education superintendent in 2022

After last year’s abortion fight, the three GOP Senate women — who instead proposed a ban at the end of the first trimester — expected opposition in 2024 from men in the House who voted repeatedly to make abortions illegal from the onset of pregnancy. But only Senn faces another legislator.

Shealy believes most voters are with her on the issue, even in her ruby red district. And the chairwoman of the Senate Family and Veterans’ Services Committee points to a 12-year record advocating for children and families.

“What people think is the top priority isn’t a top priority,” she said, citing her own polling.

Warren, a former missionary, contends Shealy’s actions on abortion and other issues disappointed Republicans. He said he’ll be a true Republican who holds to the party platform, which includes ending abortions. 

Warren ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2022 as the running mate of Harrison Musselwhite, nicknamed “Trucker Bob,” who got trounced in the GOP primary by incumbent Gov. Henry McMaster. Warren, who has held positions within the Lexington County Republican Party, also lost a bid last year for state GOP chairman. 

Shealy’s other challenger is the son of former state Rep. Ralph Kennedy, who was ousted in a GOP primary in 2016.

Carlisle Kennedy accuses Shealy of becoming more liberal as a senator, pointing to her abortion votes as an example.

“I think me and Zoe run on the Republican platform, and Shealy, she … kind of jumps the rope between being a Republican and not,” said Kennedy, a personal injury attorney and former prosecutor.

McLeod’s announcement

Regardless of the outcome of the races of the Senate’s GOP women, the five “sister senators” who last fall received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for their united abortion stand will lose a member.

Monday’s filings ended months of speculation over whether Sen. Mia McLeod of Columbia might rejoin the Democratic Party and run for re-election.

McLeod, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2022, switched to Independent on the first day of the 2023 session. Her surprise announcement accused the Democratic Party of taking Black voters for granted and not supporting Black female candidates like her. The 2021 redrawing of voting lines made her Richland County seat even safer for Democrats. So, it would be very difficult for a Republican to win it — unless no Democrat ran. Winning as an Independent would be nearly impossible, even for an incumbent.

As she stayed publicly silent about her plans, Democrats who announced their intentions to seek the seat included Richland 2 School Board member Monika Elkins and Rep. Ivory Thigpen. A third Democrat and a Republican also filed by the deadline Monday, when McLeod broke her silence.

“Last year, as I prayerfully sought His direction about 2024, it became increasingly obvious that He was bringing my season in elected office to a close. And although some have tried to pressure me to disclose my intentions sooner, God led me to “Be still…” as I awaited confirmation,” McLeod, a legislator for 14 years, wrote in a statement. “Today, I have that confirmation and I’m excited because I trust Him! When He says, ‘Behold, I am doing a new thing…’ I believe Him.”

She did not indicate her future plans and did not respond to a request for comment from the SC Daily Gazette.

“I think she was just tired,” Shealy said. “The (Senate) women faced a lot of adversity last year.”

Most candidates

The legislator who drew the most challengers is freshmen Sen. Billy Garrett, R-Greenwood, who represents parts of Abbeville, Greenwood, McCormick and Saluda counties. He will face three Republicans in June. Two Democrats have also filed for the seat. 

The Statehouse seat with the most candidates is the one opened by Sen. Thomas McElveen’s decision not to seek re-election after 12 years in the chamber. Nine candidates are vying to replace the Sumter Democrat for the district that spans Kershaw, Lee, Richland and Sumter counties.

The five Democrats and four Republicans hoping to replace him include Republican Lindsay Agostini, a Richland 2 School Board member since 2016. 

State Rep. Russell Ott of St. Matthews and Sen. Dick Harpootlian of Columbia are the two Democrats facing off in June to replace retiring Sen. Nikki Setzler of West Columbia. The 2021 post-census redistricting drew Harpootlian, former chairman of the state Democratic Party, out of the Senate seat he’s held since flipping it blue in a 2018 special election. Three Republicans have also filed for Setzler’s redrawn seat, which spans Aiken, Calhoun, Lexington and Saluda counties.

Two open state House seats each have six candidates: The seat Ott is vacating to run for Senate and the one held by retiring Rep. Ashley Trantham, R-Pelzer.

Freedom Caucus

Trantham, first sent to the House in a 2018 special election, is among four members of the chamber’s uber-conservative Freedom Caucus not running to keep their seats. 

Two are running for Congress. The caucus chairman, Adam Morgan of Taylors, is challenging William Timmons in the 4th Congressional District.

Rep. Stewart Jones, R-Laurens, is among eight Republicans running for the open 3rd Congressional District to replace retiring Rep. Jeff Duncan.

Other Republicans seeking Duncan’s seat include Kevin Bishop, former longtime staffer of U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, Sheri Biggs, a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard, and Mark Burns, a pastor from Easley who’s been a prominent supporter of former President Donald Trump.

Burns previously ran for the 4th District in 2018 and 2022, both times losing to Timmons. He did not get Trump’s endorsement for either race.

Eleven other Freedom Caucus members are facing GOP challengers, including its vice-chairman, Rep. R.J. May of Lexington. The 17-member caucus that May helped form in 2022 regularly criticizes House GOP leadership. In a chamber where Republicans hold a supermajority, debates often highlight the rancor between the hardline faction and the majority GOP caucus.

May, who runs campaigns for Republicans who match his conservative brand, said he thinks the caucus will grow with this year’s elections.

“We’ll protect our seats that we have. We’ll elect conservative, Freedom Caucus-aligned candidates in the ones where our folks are moving on, but we also think we’re going to expand the overall number,” he said.

Incumbents not seeking re-election

The following South Carolina legislators (and one congressman) are not running for re-election. However, five state House members are running for the Statehouse’s upper chamber, and two are running for Congress.

  • Rep. Bart Blackwell, R-Aiken (District 81)
  • Rep. Ben Connell, R-Lugoff (District 52)
  • *Rep. Jason Elliott, R-Greenville (District 22)
  • Rep. Raye Felder, R-Tega Cay (District 66)
  • Rep. Pat Henegan, D-Bennettsville (District 54)
  • Rep. Max Hyde, R-Spartanburg (District 32)
  • **Rep. Stewart Jones, R-Greenwood (District 14)
  • *Rep. Matt Leber, R-Johns Island (District 116)
  • **Rep. Adam Morgan, R-Taylors (District 20)
  • *Rep. Roger Nutt, R-Moore (District 34)
  • Rep. David O’Neal, R-Fort Mill (District 66)
  • *Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews (District 93)
  • Rep. Anne Thayer, R-Belton (District 9)
  • *Rep. Ivory Thigpen, D-Columbia (District 79)
  • Rep. Ashley Trantham, R-Pelzer (District 28)
  • Sen. Dwight Loftis, R-Greenville (District 6)
  • Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter (District 35)
  • Sen. Mia McLeod, I-Columbia (District 22)
  • Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-West Columbia (District 26)
  • Sen. Scott Talley, R-Spartanburg (District 12)
  • U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-Laurens (3rd District)

*Seeking a state Senate seat

**Seeking a U.S. House seat