While headlines from last week’s election persist, both locally and nationally, it might have been easy to forget two races in the Midlands that resulted in two longtime members of the General Assembly being ousted from their seats.
In Senate 23, Katrina Shealy easily defeated longtime Lexington County fixture Jake Knotts.
In House 78, Beth Bernstein bested the popular Joan Brady.
Shealy Leaves Knotts Shellshocked
Shealy’s victory can only be described as historic.
With her win, she becomes the only female in the Senate and she also replaces a lawmaker in Knotts who was both famous and infamous, with a knack for finding headlines in the worst possible way.
But most notably, her victory came as a petition candidate. After being bounced from the ballots in the spring, Shealy got on the November ballot via petition.
Knotts’ propensity for straight talk would, in theory, seem to make him an easy target, but according to Michael Mule’, who worked on Shealy’s campaign, simply attacking Knotts’ lapses in judgment was no guarantee of success.
“You have to show why the incumbent has failed constituents, but the challenger also has to make voters feel confident you’ll be different,” Mule’ said.
Though Shealy’s campaign benefited from some financial support from Gov. Nikki Haley’s PAC, Mule’ said it was still outspent by Knotts by about 15 to 1.
“We knew we were going to be drastically outspent, so we had to develop a new strategy,” Mule’ said.
The campaign had two assets, Shealy herself and a network of volunteers that was loyal to her.
“(Katrina) worked harder to execute our plan more than any candidate I’ve ever seen,” Mule’ said. “She put a lot of trust in it and she was an incredible messenger.”
The volunteer network mirrored Shealy herself.
“We had one piece of literature and we used that piece of literature with all of our volunteers to take our message directly to voters,” Mule’ explained.
Mule’ estimates that approximately 20,000 doors were knocked on in District 23 either by Shealy or by a volunteer.
"We ran a campaign that had probably never been seen before in Lexington County,” said Mule’, President of UPT Strategies out of Charleston. “Most people in the district probably have never gotten a knock on the door from a politician.”
“We don’t have a one-size fits all approach when we run campaigns," Mule’ said, referring to UPT. “But there is nothing better than talking to voters face to face.”
This map shows where Shealy got the bulk of her support.
Bernstein Combines Numbers Plus Ethics Reform
Bernstein’s win, though perhaps less of a surprise than Shealy’s, is still significant.
Her victory came at the expense of Brady, who has been a tireless, citizens-first legislator both in her own community and in the House. Her command of the issues was strong, as she demonstrated in a candidates’ roundtable before the primary.
But the numbers were against Brady. Her district had traditionally been Democratic — it went to Vincent Shaheen in the gubernatorial race by about 20 points. Brady had held the seat thanks to superb constituent services. The district lines were re-drawn after the 2010 Census to be more in her favor.
But Bernstein issued a strong challenge that Brady could not overcome.
According to Tyler Jones, who worked with Bernstein’s campaign, the campaign focused on issues and ethics. Given that the district was still Democratic after being re-drawn, the issues seemed to be on Bernstein’s side.
As far as ethics, it’s been a buzzword this election year, but Jones said it played a role in Bernstein’s win.
Brady did not have any ethics questions about her specifically, but the Bernstein campaign believed that voters disapproved of the way Brady, .
In the final weeks of the campaign, Bernstein’s team was again able to tie Brady to ethics issues when a PAC tied to House Speaker Bobby Harrell— who is potentially facing an ethics investigation due to his travel reimbursements — donated thousands of dollars to Brady.
Jones said that his campaign tied Brady to Haley’s first two years of governance. “We made it a referendum on Nikki Haley and the voters spoke,” he said.
Once she takes office, Jones said Bernstein will make a priority of ethics reform. “That was the basis of her campaign,” Jones said. “Beth put out a plan for ethics reform because she thinks restoring voters’ trust in government is the most important thing she can do.”