2022 Election Recap – Land Protection Wins and Major House Shifts
Every Election Day, I get asked a few times “what are you watching today?” It is a fun question to ask political types because you get insight into where folks have invested time and resources, and you get early insight into how they believe the outcomes of the elections will affect the issues they care most about.
This Election Day, my response to “what are you watching” was twofold:
- The land protection referenda in Berkeley, Beaufort, and Dorchester Counties; and
- How redistricting will affect a few key House races and dynamics within the Republican House majority.
Here’s a rundown of why those were on my radar and how they ended up last night. You can also take a look at our election investment summaries here.
Referenda – $200 million for Protecting Land & Water!
CVSC and our conservation allies launched robust campaigns this election cycle in Berkeley and Beaufort Counties to advocate for referenda to provide local land protection funding and educated voters in Dorchester County about a third referendum. CVSC and our allies made over 1.5 million voter contacts and spent over $200,000 in these campaigns, showing that the conservation community stepped up in a big way to protect the land and water we love in South Carolina.
These investments continue our 20 year legacy of fighting to advance innovative policies that provide tools and funding to protect land and water. With nearly $200 million on the ballot for land protection, this election cycle was an opportunity we couldn’t let pass by. We knew that voters across the state and on both sides of the political aisle cared about conservation, but we also knew it was up to CVSC and the conservation community to make sure voters took action this election cycle.
Last night, voters approved all 3 referenda that will generate nearly $200 million for land protection in rapidly growing counties! When leveraged with state and federal funds, these dollars will go a long way to protect the South Carolina we love.
Berkeley County: In Berkeley County, CVSC and our conservation allies invested heavily in a “Vote Yes” effort to renew a 1% sales tax that will provide $528.3 million for transportation improvements and $58.7 million for land protection efforts. CVSC and our allies made over 720,902 voter contacts to build support for the referendum.
In the end, Berkeley County voters approved the referendum with a vote of 73% in favor – a resounding victory! Read more about this victory and CVSC’s reactions here.
Beaufort County: CVSC and the Conservation Coalition were driving forces behind the passage of S.152 (later Act 166) last session, which allowed Counties to authorize a greenspace referendum. Beaufort County became the first county to take advantage of this tool, referring a 1% sales tax for 2 years to voters in the hopes of generating up to $100 million for land protection. CVSC and our partners completed public opinion polling that helped Beaufort County Council finalize the scope and scale of the greenspace referendum. We then designed and managed a “Vote Yes” campaign with Coastal Conservation League, Audubon South Carolina, Trust for Public Land, and other partners that drove 236,149 voter contacts.
Last night, Beaufort County voters approved the referendum with a vote of 53% in favor and became the first county to establish a greenspace sales tax! Read more about this victory and CVSC’s reactions here.
Dorchester County: In Dorchester County, CVSC worked closely with partners at the Lowcountry Land Trust, Trust for Public Land, and Lord Berkeley Conservation Trust to design and manage a campaign to educate voters about the 1% sales tax referendum for transportation and greenspace projects through 311,305 voter contacts. The referendum will provide $700 million for transportation improvements and $35 million for land protection efforts.
When the dust settled after the election, Dorchester County voters approved the referendum with a vote of 58.9% in favor. Read more about this victory here.
House Elections and Surprises
Primary Elections: CVSC has long said that the June party primaries are the default elections for our General Assembly. In fact, analysis from the League of Women Voters suggests that nearly 95% of State House districts are non-competitive; meaning the elected officials from these districts will be determined in the party primaries. The 2020 redistricting solidified this political reality even more firmly for another decade.
That’s why CVSC invested heavily in the June primaries, where we focused on electing pragmatic leaders in open seats who will work across the aisle to protect our state. We also fought to defend key conservation champions of both parties. We were successful too, with a 91.7% success rate in the primaries (see our primary investment summary here and recap here).
Lowcountry General Elections: But we still had work to do this November, particularly in the Lowcountry. When you combine rapid growth and changing demographics with redistricting, a number of Lowcountry districts were going to be “tested” in the general election.
Rep. Spencer Wetmore (D-Folly Beach) and Rep. Chardale Murray (D-Hollywood) had districts that have been within a few hundred votes for the last few election cycles. Rep. Leon Stavrinakis (D-Charleston) saw pretty drastic changes to District 119, which led to an influx of aggressive negative mail funded by out-of-state dark money interests. CVSC endorsed each of these champions and invested heavily to emphasize their tireless efforts fighting to defend core environmental protections and support bold land protection and clean energy goals.
Reps. Wetmore and Stavrinakis were able to win re-election with 54% and 57.5%, respectively. Unfortunately, redistricting shifted District 116 to become a more conservative district, ultimately costing Rep. Murray the election as she lost with only 48% of the vote, despite strong turnout in the district.
We didn’t endorse in House 117 (Rep. Krystle Matthews), but we were watching this district to see the impact of redistricting and other factors in the election. Redistricting and low Democratic turnout (approximately 47% in District 117 compared to 50% statewide) also led to Rep. Matthew’s defeat in this State House seat, with only 36% of the vote going to Rep. Matthews.
Defensive Races Elsewhere: CVSC was also active in other key areas throughout the state, including District 124, where Shannon Erickson (R-Beaufort) won by with 62.7% of the vote. We invested in Districts 79 and 95 to support the sizeable victories by Rep. Ivory Thigpen (D-Columbia with 77%) and Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D-Orangeburg with 59%).
Low Turnout Topples Democratic Incumbents: The biggest surprises this election cycle were in districts that were expected to be strong Democratic districts. Lower turnout in these districts – at or below the statewide turnout of 50% – led to the defeat of 3 additional Democratic incumbents (beyond Reps. Murray and Matthews noted above).
In District 12, Rep. Anne Parks (D-Greenwood) lost with only 47% of the vote. In District 64, CVSC-endorsed Rep. Kim Johnson (D-Manning) lost with only 44.8% of the vote. And in District 122, CVSC-endorsed Rep. Shedron Williams (D-Hampton) lost with only 46% of the vote.
Low turnout trends persisted throughout the state, leading to other Democratic incumbents having much closer races in ‘safe’ Democratic districts than expected. CVSC-endorsed Rep. Joe Jefferson won by a narrow 288 votes in District 102 (approximately 46% turnout) and CVSC-endorsed Rep. Pat Henegan won by just 516 votes in District 54 (approximately 44% turnout).
One other Surprise: The other surprise result was in District 75 where challenger Heather Bauer defeated incumbent Rep. Kirkman Finlay (R-Columbia) with 50.7% of the vote.
What these Results mean for Changing Dynamics in the House
Overall, CVSC had 29 endorsed candidates with opposition in the General Election, and 26 of these candidates were successfully elected for an 89.7% success rate in the General. When combined with our primary investments, 38 of our 43 endorsed candidates will be going to the South Carolina State House, an overall success rate of 88.4%. Check out cvsc.org/elections for a race-by-race recap of who won.
GOP House Dynamics: As a result of redistricting and election shifts, the Republican Caucus in the House is set to have an 88-36 majority. What this means for conservation in the House remains to be seen, especially given the fact that we have a strong track record of bipartisan support for conservation.
What we do know, however, is that CVSC’s focus in the primary and general elections was to support the election of pragmatic leaders who can work with leadership and with their colleagues across the aisle to protect the air, land, and water we love. The current GOP leadership in the House has historically been supportive of conservation issues and we expect this bipartisan trend to continue.
Speaker Murrell Smith, for example, has long been a champion of clean water and land protection, leading efforts to establish a PFAS remediation fund for drinking water systems and secure record funding for land protection. He has also formed a special committee to examine opportunities for clean energy to serve as an economic development tool, among other issues.
When we look at the changes in the House, we see about the same number of pragmatic and collaborative Representatives headed to Columbia as in the past, though some of the party labels may have changed. We are hopeful that this means the State House can maintain its collaborative spirit and prevent hyper-partisanship from taking over.
Looking Ahead to the 2023-2024 Legislative Session
Outside pressure and polarization will try to quickly take hold of our allies in the General Assembly – that much is certain. We’ve been successful working with our bipartisan champions in the General Assembly to resist this intense polarization, primarily because of intense support from conservation voters like you.
So as we head into the 2023-2024 legislative session, I’m asking you to continue to support conservation and to continue to lend your voice to our efforts.
Please help us to celebrate lawmakers from both parties who lead on conservation and environmental issues and help us let lawmakers know that we’re watching when they vote against the environment. We cannot and will not maintain a strong, bipartisan majority supporting conservation without your voice and support.
We’ve done it for 20 years here at CVSC and, with your help, we can do it for another 20 years more.