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Democrats mark legislative wins in deeply red South Carolina

November 8, 2018

FILE - In this Wednesday, July 8, 2015, file photo, Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, speaks on the floor of the South Carolina House in Columbia, S.C. Even in a deeply red state like South Carolina, where all statewide offices are held by Republicans, Democrats are making some inroads in the legislature. South Carolina Democrats on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, wrested two state House seats from Republican incumbents. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Even in deeply red South Carolina, where all statewide offices are held by Republicans, Democrats are making some inroads in the legislature, wresting three legislative seats from Republican control on Tuesday.

The legislative wins come nowhere close to shifting the balance of power in either chamber. But the victories, coupled with the pickup of a congressional seat held by Republicans for decades, are being characterized by Democrats as signs that they could be chipping away at the GOP’s longtime hold on state government.

The pickups in South Carolina’s House and Senate chambers came on a night when Democrats regained control of the U.S. House from Republicans and even picked up one U.S. House seat in South Carolina that hadn’t been held by a Democrat since 1980. In the 1st District, Joe Cunningham defeated Republican Katie Arrington, becoming South Carolina’s first new congressional Democrat to join the delegation in more than 25 years.

AJ Lenar, a consultant on Cunningham’s campaign, said his candidate smartly reached out to Republican mayors and councilmembers, building a bipartisan coalition and running on a positive message.

“From the get go, we told people what he was for,” he said. “We didn’t tear Katie down. We laid out a positive narrative.”

Amanda Loveday, former executive director of South Carolina’s Democratic Party, said some of the enthusiasm about Cunningham’s candidacy trickled down-ballot to two state House victories for the party in the area. Newcomer Krystle Simmons defeated four-term Republican Bill Crosby in House District 117, which includes some areas north of Charleston.

In neighboring House District 15, another Republican incumbent, Samuel Rivers Jr., was unseated by Democrat challenger J.A. Moore by a five-point margin.

Democrats would still need to pick up about 20 seats to get a House majority. But Loveday said the victories can help build momentum over the next two years, when all House and Senate seats will be up for election.

“Potential candidates for 2020 and even further looked at Tuesday night and thought, ‘It is possible. I could beat an incumbent,’ or, ‘I could beat a Republican in a red district,’” she said.

Democrats also marked a win in the sole state Senate seat up for grabs this year, with Columbia attorney Dick Harpootlian, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party, winning a seat Republicans had held for more than 30 years. The special election victory puts Harpootlian, 69, in office for the final two years of the term of John Courson, who resigned during a probe into corruption at the Statehouse, pleading guilty to converting his campaign money to personal use.

That win, state Democrats’ first flip in the chamber since 2000, brings their Senate numbers to 19 — still far from the majority Republicans’ 27 seats. Until Harpootlian’s victory over Benjamin Dunn, a 48-year-old attorney and war veteran who served in Afghanistan, no Democrat has held this seat in more than three decades.

In addition to both of South Carolina’s legislative chambers, Republicans also control South Carolina’s governorship and all statewide-elected offices. But Loveday said even small victories show the party’s ability to make a bigger dent in state government one day.

“When you win a couple of seats year after year after year, you get in control at some point,” she said. “Having success in 2018 helps for 2020.”

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Meg Kinnard can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP

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For AP’s complete coverage of the U.S. midterm elections: http://apne.ws/APPolitics

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