South Carolina likes to elect its senators for life. In fact, the last time an incumbent senator actually lost a re-election bid was in 1930, when notoriously racist Sen. Coleman Blease was defeated in the Democratic primary by James F. Byrnes. Every senator since Byrnes’ election has either retired or died in office, which certainly says a lot about the value of incumbency — at least where the Senate is concerned.
The Palmetto State’s turnover rate among U.S. representatives is quite high, on the other hand, with voters kicking two congressmen out of office in 2010 alone. However, even relatively unpopular senators like Lindsey Graham (who actually has a 47 percent approval rating) have been able to survive primary challenges with ease.
Much has been made of the fact that South Carolina’s soon-to-be newest senator, U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, will become the first black Republican to serve in the Senate since Reconstruction when he takes over for Jim DeMint in early 2013. But unless Sen. Scott successfully defends his seat in the 2014 special election, he could make history in a different way entirely — by becoming the first incumbent senator to lose a re-election bid in over 80 years.
Scott has already built a strong power base among South Carolina’s conservative establishment, however, which could help him make it through the primary without too much difficulty. Even so, it’s worth an examination of South Carolina’s Republican primary electorate to get a closer look at the landscape Scott will face in two years.
Though South Carolinians don’t register to vote by party, the State Elections Commission posts demographic breakdowns of voters in both parties’ primaries. Unsurprisingly, the data shows that the Republican Party in South Carolina is almost entirely made up of old white people. About 97 percent of voters in the 2012 GOP presidential primary were white, and a combined 84 percent were over the age of 45. In 2008, 99 percent of Republican primary voters were white, while 73 percent of voters were older than 45. By comparison, over half of voters in the 2008 Democratic primary were non-white, and about 67 percent of Democratic primary voters were over 45.
Of course, none of this is to suggest that the Republicans’ almost-totally white electorate would reject Scott in a primary or general election just because he’s African-American. After all, Gov. Nikki Haley repeatedly (and correctly) stated when she announced Scott’s appointment that he earned his seat in Washington. But the Lowcountry which elected Scott to Congress is a different voting demographic than the state as a whole, meaning the new senator may have to work to appeal to a different electorate to keep the Senate seat.
If Scott is re-elected in 2014, there’s still a chance that an incumbent senator is unseated that year. State Sen. Tom Davis (R-Beaufort) is considering a primary bid against Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has been deemed insufficiently conservative by the “angry white guys” of the tea party. While Scott and the other members of South Carolina’s Republican congressional delegation had nothing but praise for Graham at Scott’s coronation ceremony, a lot could change over the next two years if a fellow tea partier like Davis jumps into the race.