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Bottoms Up: Down-Ticket Races Could Impact Ones on Top

Hotly contested state house and senate races could boost turnout.

The conventional wisdom in politics is the top of the ticket is what drives people to the polls. The campaign of Barack Obama in 2008 is a case in point, when millions of new voters joined the electorate to elect the 44th President.

Except 2012 has not been a year where conventional wisdom has held form in South Carolina. Just ask Mitt Romney, who is the first Republican nominee for president since 1976 not to have won the Palmetto State in the primaries. That was just the beginning.

The state Supreme Court ruling in the summer that saw hundreds of candidates removed from ballots actually may have served as a catalyst in igniting the attention of voters who might not necessarily have been interested in state politics. 

Harry Kibler’s interest in state politics is hardly a passing fad. He harnessed the outrage following the Supreme Court’s ruling via Operation Lost Vote (OLV), which he helped form.

Ultimately, OLV helped get 153 candidates got back on the ballot via a petition drive that garnered more than 300,000 signatures.

Beyond the immediate benefit to the candidates who got on ballots is the long-term benefit of energizing voters in the most local of political issues. Were the presidential race or any of the seven congressional races up for grabs in South Carolina, Kibler thinks the voters driven by local issues could have tipped the scales.

And in places like Virginia, Ohio and Florida, where the presidential race could be decided by hundreds of votes, the impact could be dramatic.

“I think it’s possible,” Kibler said of the chance that voters more interested in local issues could turn out in enough numbers to make a difference at the top of the ticket. Kibler pointed to several races where there is intense local interest: Senate 23 between Jake Knotts and Katrina Shealy; Senate 3 between Larry Martin and Rex Rice; and House 3 between B.R. Skelton and Ed Harris.

In all those races the incumbent faces a petition candidate who had been tossed from the ballot. In two of the races, it was the petition candidate who received the endorsement of the state party (Shealy and Harris).

Gov. Nikki Haley thinks the non-traditional candidates are not to be underestimated. “It’s the year of the petition candidate,” Haley told Patch. “They’ve created a lot of energy on the ground and made people think twice about voting the straight party ticket.”

Kibler elaborated the point, “As conservatives here in South Carolina, we need to realize a few things. Neither of our Senators (DeMint and Graham) are up for re-election. Our Congressional delegation has done a good job. The state’s electoral votes will go to Romney. So, we need to focus on that statehouse with all our energy.”

Political Science Professor Mark Tompkins of the University of South Carolina said that historically local issues have always gotten voters to polls. “When ballot issues come up, like the one in Richland County about transportation funding, that can really drive turnout.”

Tompkins said that because of the way both parties have gerrymandered districts, close races are increasingly rare in general elections. But all the petition candidates this year have negated some of the effects of re-districting and made Nov. 6 a much more compelling day than expected in some quarters of South Carolina.

And in the right circumstances, pollsters could be looking at the turnout for a race in the state legislature to gauge the likelihood of victory in a Senate race, or even a presidential race.

Tompkins noted that in states like Virginia and Ohio, both presidential swing states, there are also tight senate races. “A turnout of five percent greater than usual in a state house or senate race could have a profound impact.”

For Kibler, he’s looking beyond Nov. 6.

“We learned so much in getting 153 candidates on the ballots with 300,000 names on signatures. The information that comes with those signature is valuable,” he said. “I think in the next election cycle there could be candidates that skip the primaries and just qualify as a petition candidate. The people who signed those petitions are extremely engaged voters.”

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