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S.C. Democrats: 'We're coming back'

S.C. Democrats still are smarting from a brutal November that stripped them of one of their two congressional seats, their only statewide office and a handful of General Assembly seats.

But, after some serious post-election number crunching, the state party contends Palmetto State Democrats fared better than Democrats in other states - whose candidates were clobbered by wide margins, too - and actually grew their ranks, laying the groundwork for a comeback.

"We've grown our base. These new numbers show we're not dead and done like some people say," said Jay Parmley, director of the S.C. Democratic Party. "Yes, we lost everything, but we're coming back.

"You don't get 47 percent of the votes in a governor's race and throw yourself away forever," Parmley added, referring to Democrat Vincent Sheheen's narrow 51-47 loss to Republican Nikki Haley.

Democrats have a point, sort of, says Scott Huffmon, political science professor at Winthrop University.

"South Carolina has not returned to a one-party state," Huffmon said. "While Democratic elected officials are definitely in the minority, the presence of close high-profile races, such as the 2010 gubernatorial race, shows that - to paraphrase Twain - reports of their death have been greatly exaggerated.

"That said, the failure to even field a candidate forseveral high-profile races shows a lack of depth on the candidate bench, and while they're not dead, neither are they at their most vibrant."

Bemused Republicans are not nearly so generous.

They say Democrats are dreaming.

"It's a fairly pathetic attempt to make lemonade out of lemons," said Joel Sawyer, director of the S.C. Republican Party, ticking off the GOP's capture of all nine statewide offices and defeat of 28-year-incumbent U.S. Rep. John Spratt, D-York.

"I don't know how anyone on the left can claim anything less than a clobbering."

Keeping black voters energized

As proof that all is not lost, Democrats point to their party's successful effort to keep energized black voters, historically loyal Democratic voters.

"Since the election, people say to me all the time, 'Gosh, African-Americans didn't vote, and that was the problem,'" said Carol Fowler, chairwoman of the S.C. Democratic Party. "But that's clearly not true."

"They voted in higher numbers and in higher percentages than ever before - except in 2008, and that record is never going to be broken. It's a sign that African-American voters are more engaged than they used to be, and the Democratic Party is more able to engage those voters," she said.

Democratic Party data, given to The State newspaper, shows:

Twenty-eight percent of S.C. voters in November were black. That's up from 24 percent in 2006, the previous gubernatorial election. The gap between black and white turnout in 2010 also was the smallest since at least 1998.

While blacks cast a whopping 31 percent of all votes in November 2008, Democrats say it is not fair to compare a governor's race with a presidential election when the Democratic candidate was Barack Obama, the first black nominee.

Black voters make up an increasingly larger part of South Carolina's voter pie.

The number of black voters has increased by nearly 32 percent since 1998, while the number of white voters has increased by nearly 19 percent, Democrats say.

Still, blacks make up only a third of the state's population, meaning the upside with black voters is limited.

Nearly half of first-time Democratic voters in 2008 and other, only sometimes Democratic voters cast ballots again in November.

That's significant, say Democrats, because many questioned whether that bloc of voters would be energized to vote without Obama on the ballot. Democratic Party data calculates that 2008's first-time bloc represented about 11 percent of the state's voters last November, more than 144,000 voters.

"All of these people said African-Americans voted for Obama in 2008, but we'd never get them back out to vote in 2010," Parmley said. "But ... we got a lot of them back out. That's a big, big number for us - 144,000 votes for Sheheen."

Woes with independents

But the data shows trouble for Democrats too.

One key segment, independent voters, is not pulling the lever for Democrats.

By Democrats' own calculations, independents accounted for nearly a third of November voters. Only one in three voted Democratic, according to the data.

"This is the area where our candidates came up short," Parmley said. "Whether they didn't raise enough money, whether their message didn't click - who knows exactly what it was. We were up against the tea party, a lot of out-of-state money, and we just couldn't fight the headwinds."

Sawyer says Democrats overestimate the number of independents in solidly Republican South Carolina.

The weakness of S.C. Democrats goes beyond one bad election cycle, Sawyer said. He points to 2008, arguably the best year for Democrats in recent history, thanks to Obama's historic run.

"They failed to pick up a congressional seat, and they picked up one seat in the [S.C.] House," Sawyer said. "Even in their best year ever, they had very marginal success."

Also, Republicans successfully have increased the number of voters who cast a straight-party ballot.

Forty-seven percent of Haley's voters cast a straight-party GOP ballot, up from 37 percent in 2006. Fifty-two percent of Sheheen's voters cast straight-party Democratic ballots, but that was flat with 2006.