South Carolina State Legislative Runoffs

Here is some initial analysis about yesterday’s primary runoff elections in South Carolina:

  • The big story of last night is that there were four prominent and longtime incumbent State Senators who were involved in runoffs yesterday (State Sens. Creighton Coleman (D), Larry Martin (R), Lee Bright (R) and Mike Fair (R)), and all four were defeated.  Just one South Carolina incumbent survived yesterday, as veteran State Rep. Bill Bowers (D) won his State House District #122 race by less than 200 votes.  How rare is it to have four out of five incumbents lose a runoff?  From 2008 through 2014, only 8 South Carolina state legislative incumbents faced primary runoffs, and all but one won.  The sole exception was Republican State Senator Jim Ritchie, who lost his SD-13 runoff in 2008.

[As I noted on Twitter last night, what seems interesting is that one might have expected so many prominent incumbents to lose when either of this year’s anti-establishment Presidential candidates (Trump, Sanders) was also on the ballot. But that was not the case.]

[The losses by these incumbents, however, won’t have any impact on either party’s chances in these districts in November, as there is no Democratic opponent in the three Republican-held seats, and Sen. Coleman’s SD-17 district is solidly Democratic.  The current party composition of the South Carolina State Senate is 28 Republicans and 18 Democrats. ] 

  • Nine of yesterday’s thirteen primary runoffs (69%) were won by the candidate who finished first in the primary two weeks earlier.  That is very much in line with recent historical averages.  In the 20 state legislative runoffs that occurred from 2008 to 2014, 70 percent (14 out of 20) were won by the candidate who finished first in their primary.
  • In states that have runoffs, getting forty percent in the primary is often seen as a crucial benchmark, and that is historically been very significant in South Carolina.  In the last four cycles, candidates who finished first in their primary while getting greater than 40% of the vote were very likely to win their runoff (14 out of 16, or 86%), while during that same period, the four primary winners who had received less than 40% each lost.  This trend was completely destroyed yesterday.  Will Wheeler (D, HD-50), Micah Caskey (R, HD-89), and William Cogswell, Jr. (R, HD-110) all won their runoffs despite getting less than 40% in the primary two weeks earlier.  Meanwhile, State Senators Larry Martin (R, SD-2) and Creighton Coleman (D, SD-17), along with K.T. Ruthven (R) in HD-81, all lost in the runoff despite getting over 40% in the primary.  Sen. Coleman’s loss must be especially tough considering that he came within 100 votes of winning his primary outright two weeks ago.
  • None of yesterday’s state legislative runoffs were within the 1% margin necessary to trigger an automatic recount under state law.  The closest contest was the Republican runoff in HD-81, which came within 13 votes of being decided by less than one percent of the total votes cast.

Turnout in these runoffs was relatively strong, as measured by the percent of total votes cast in the runoff, as compared with the primary.  This is noteworthy since neither party had any Congressional races or runoffs for state executive office in 2016.  In fact, this was the first time in five cycles that the state legislative contests were at the top of the runoff ballot.

  • As can be seen from my chart below, runoffs for State Senate seats have generally had almost the same number of votes cast in the runoff as in the corresponding primary.  In fact, since 2008, this ratio of runoff votes to primary votes has never been less than 70% for a State Senate runoff, and 2016 continued that trend.  In the four State Senate races yesterday involving incumbents, that ratio was 80% or higher.
  • Not surprisingly, the percentage of runoff-votes-to-primary-votes was lower for the State House races, where it was generally between 60 and 70 percent.  The big outlier, of course, was State Rep. Bill Bowers’ (D) win in HD-122, which saw 17 percent more votes in the runoff than in the primary.  As shown in the chart, having more votes cast in the runoff than in the primary has only happened four times in the 33 state legislative runoffs held in South Carolina since 2008.

South Carolina runoffs since 2008

The above chart can also be viewed as a .pdf file: South Carolina Runoffs since 2008.

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