South Carolina

10 things you should know about Tuesday's Democratic primary

Here are the democratic candidates for SC Governor

Democratic gubernatorial candidates James Smith, Marguerite Willis and Phil Noble debated at Clemson University on May 24.
Up Next
Democratic gubernatorial candidates James Smith, Marguerite Willis and Phil Noble debated at Clemson University on May 24.

SC Democrats — and voters who want to cast a Democratic ballot — will go to the polls starting at 7 a.m. Tuesday to pick the Democratic nominees for governor, U.S. and SC. House seats.

Here are 10 things you should know about Tuesday's primary:

1. Who is running for the Democratic nomination for governor?

There are three candidates: Charleston consultant-businessman Phil Noble, state Rep. James Smith of Columbia and Florence attorney Marguerite Willis.

2. Will there be a runoff?

Anyone's guess. Polling has been scarce, all over the map and — frankly, in some cases — not believable. If there is a runoff, Smith most likely will face Willis. Thus far, Smith, the anointed favorite, has been slow to catch fire. However, Smith could avoid a runoff on the strength of support from the political machine of U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, who has endorsed the longtime state representative.

3. What is the case for Smith?

Electability, an odd argument for a Democrat, who has not won the Governor's Mansion since 1998. However, Smith hopes to appeal to independents and some moderate Republicans by stressing his military service in Afghanistan and his support for Second Amendment rights, which Noble, in particular, has pounded him for. Also, Smith says he will focus on improving the state's schools as governor and, anticipating that Republicans will maintain their majorities in the House and Senate, says he has a record of being able to work across party lines to get things done.

4. What is the case of Willis?

Willis is the new face in the race. Her husband ran for governor in 2006, but the anti-trust lawyer has never run for office before. Willis says she was motivated to run by the election of President Donald Trump and revels in calling the Republican a racist and a sexist. She strongly advocates for women's rights and says she would use the state Commerce Department to attract new businesses and opportunity to rural counties.

5. What is the case for Noble?

S.C. Democrats have been wandering in the wilderness for 20 years. Noble is their chance to do something radical. Reinvent the state's school system. Take on the National Rifle Association. Build a state budget by asking how much money is needed and then determining where to get it — rather than allocating the money available.

6. What are Smith's weaknesses?

Smith had huge advantages in money and party support. But he has been unable to solidify his status as frontrunner. In part, that just may prove how little known a state representative is outside his or her House district. Or it could be a sign of bigger problems. Noble and Willis also have questioned what Smith has accomplished in his 22 years in the House, years spent as a member of the largely powerless minority party. They also have tried to tie him to the fallen political empire of Republican godfather Richard Quinn.

7. What are Willis' weaknesses?

At times, Willis has seemed more interested in running against President Trump than Smith or Noble. That may rile up the Democratic base. But it could prove a losing strategy in the November general election, given Trump's relative popularity in the state.

8. What are Noble's weaknesses?

Noble is the glibbest of the three candidates — witty on a debate stage, in a dry, sarcastic way. But he has no money. Also, his proposed radical solutions would be the toughest sell in November and to the GOP-controlled Legislature. Noble has sought Democratic positions twice before — once, as the party's nominee for lieutenant governor and, once, as state party chair. Both times his fellow Democrats said: No thanks.

9. Have the candidates named their lieutenant governor-running mates? Will their names be on Tuesday's ballot?

Yes. And no.

First, Willis picked state Sen. John Scott of Richland County. Scott checks all kinds of boxes. He has experience in state government, where Willis does not. He is an African-American man. And he is from solidly Democratic Richland County, which should be Smith's base.

Smith then named state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell of Lancaster, the hometown of the last Democrat to be elected governor. Widely viewed as a rising star in the state party, Norrell added a woman to Smith's ticket and, the Smith campaign says, has an ability to speak to rural, Upstate manufacturing workers.

Noble picked former 7th District congressional candidate Gloria Tinubu of Georgetown. She added an African-American woman to the ticket, and she also has experience in elected office in Georgia. Geographically, however, the Noble-Tinubu ticket is the all-coastal ticket.

Smith alone did not name an African-American running mate. However, he has been endorsed by some of the state's most powerful black Democrats, including Clyburn.

It will be interesting, however, to see if Scott, in particular, can peel some African-American voters away from Smith.

10. Are there any contested Democratic races for the U.S. House?


Five Democrats are running in the 4th District race to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-Spartanburg.

There also contested races in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 7th districts, all considered safely Republican — like the 4th.

But the most interesting race may be in the 5th District.

Last year, Democrat Archie Parnell came within 3 percentage points of defeating Republican Ralph Norman, a feat that would have been a stunning upset, reclaiming a seat that Democrats lost in 2010. A Norman-Parnell rematch widely was anticipated this year.

Then, it was revealed that Parnell abused his ex-wife 45 years ago and Democrats fled their candidate, urging him to quit the race. But Parnell — who acknowledged the abuse and apologized, saying he had learned over the last half-century — refused to quit. Tuesday, he faces three other candidates, including a professional clown, for the Democratic nomination.