Neighbors Growing Together | Mar 24, 2019

County Matters: A Review of the Local Election Returns

Nov 21, 2012

Dear Editor,

The November 6 General Election was a reaffirmation of the status quo in Aiken County. The Republicans maintained their status as the dominant party, the Democrats successfully defended their grip over their isolated strongholds, and a referendum to change the Aiken County form of government was defeated by a wide margin. In addition, the weirdness factor was increased significantly due to the South Carolina Supreme Court’s ballotgeddon ruling. This ruling wiped out the Republican primaries for Sheriff, Auditor, Treasurer, and House District 81, with repercussions extending into the general election. Below are my observations on several of the local races across Aiken County.

Presidential – 70,363 votes were cast for President in Aiken County. Mitt Romney received 44,042 of these votes, or 63%, while Barack Obama received 25,322 votes, or 36%. Minor candidates received the remaining 1%. Given Romney’s 55% to 44% victory over Obama across South Carolina, these results made Aiken County one of Romney’s strongest counties. Nationally, Obama’s 51% to 48% victory was significantly closer than his 53% to 46% win in 2008 over John McCain. While the national vote total for the Republican nominee was fairly constant between 2008 and 2012 at approximately 60 million, Obama’s vote total dropped over the four years from 69 million to 64 million. This accounted for the tighter final vote tally this year.

State Senate District 26 – Republican Deedee Vaughters failed to unseat incumbent Democrat Nikki Setzler, with 21,856 votes (60%) for Setzler and 14,246 votes (39%) for Vaughters. In the Aiken County portion of this sprawling multi-county district, the count was 7,127 votes (63%) for Setzler and 4,160 votes (37%) for Vaughters. Setzler’s greatest margins in Aiken County came from the north side of Aiken (Aiken 2, Aiken 3, Aiken 4, Six Points 46), which he carried by a combined margin of 1,436 votes, and in absentee ballots, which he carried by 919 votes. In addition, there were several precincts in which Vaughters under-performed compared to Romney. These included Monetta 21 (48% for Romney to 37% for Vaughters), New Holland 24 (79% to 70%), Oak Grove 30 (71% to 59%), Perry 31 (60% to 41%), and Wagener 39 (51% to 38%). Clearly, the Setzler campaign was able to hold onto both the large black urban precincts while simultaneously making significant inroads among Romney-friendly rural white voters.

State House of Representatives District 81 – The race to succeed Tom Young should have been decided in the primary between Republicans Don Wells and Jane Vaughters. Instead, because of ballotgeddon, Vaughters had to collect signatures and run as the Petition candidate while Don Wells ran as the Republican. This made all the difference, as what many expected to be a closely contested race in the primary become in the general election a big win for Wells (11,455 votes and 65%) over Vaughters (6,102 votes and 35%). Though both Wells and Vaughters served as at-large members of the Aiken City Council, Wells did relatively better in the “county” precincts while Vaughter’s performance was slightly better in the “city” precincts. Nonetheless, Wells carried every precinct as his well run effort benefitted by being the only “R” on the ballot.

Probate Judge – Without commenting on the merits of the candidates, Democrat incumbent Sue Roe’s victory (37,619 votes / 55%) over Republican challenger Jane Page Thompson (30,304 votes / 45%) demonstrates how a lack of party unity can torpedo a candidacy and shatters the widely held assumption that the few remaining county offices in Democratic hands are but ripe plums waiting to fall into Republican hands. Given that the total votes in this race (67,995) is close to the number of votes in the Presidential race (70,363), the distribution of the -18% drop-off (from 63% for Romney to 45% for Thompson) in the Republican vote can be analyzed on a precinct by precinct basis. The most extreme drops were recorded in the most Republican sections of the City of Aiken including Aiken 1 -36%, Aiken 6 -36%, Millbrook 20 -28%, Gem Lakes 60 -31%, Hitchcock 66 -32%, and Anderson Pond 69 -30%. On the other hand, the drop-off was limited in strongly Democratic precincts (Aiken 3 and Aiken 4 at -4% apiece) - where the GOP vote couldn’t go much lower – and in the major North Augusta precincts and surrounding areas that Thompson won (for example, in North Augusta 25, 26, 27, 28, and 29 the average drop-off was -9%). If the rest of the county had mimicked the voting behavior of the City of Aiken, Roe would have won by an even larger margin. On the other hand, if the rest of the county had mimicked North Augusta, Thompson would have won narrowly.

County Treasurer – This was the most severely impacted race resulting from ballotgeddon. All four of the original Republicans who filed for this office (Debra Folk, Angela Gunter, Robin Saylor, and Sonya Spray) were booted off the ballot. Then several other write-in candidates announced, the most prominent being John Cagle and Melissa Oremus. And finally, after exhausting his efforts to get on the ballot as a candidate for Auditor, Jason Goings switched races from Auditor to Treasurer. Goings recognized the futility of running a write-in campaign against the only name on the ballot, Republican nominee Charles Barton, and astutely realized that he would be on a more equal footing in the Treasurer’s race where all of the candidates were write-ins. This assumption proved correct as Goings won the eleven candidate race by a relatively wide margin – 3,935 votes for Goings versus 2,706 votes for runner-up John Cagle out of a total 14,550 votes counted. Interestingly, if only one of the four original Republican candidates had managed to collect the signatures required to be placed on the ballot as a petition candidate, that candidate would likely be the Treasurer-elect.

Other County Wide Races – All of the other major races were uncontested save for write-ins. Interestingly enough, despite 70,363 votes cast for President, all of these county-wide contests were won with around 50,000 votes. This drop-off is most likely attributable to straight party voters not voting in these uncontested races. Given the number of straight party votes cast, this explanation accounts for a majority of the variances. Miscellaneous write-ins garnered about 1% in each of these races.

Minor Write-In Campaigns – Three additional organized write-in campaigns were conducted for the following offices: Dan Turno for Auditor (3%), David Lobb for House District 86 (4%), and Jim Vause for Sheriff (4%). All three campaigns demonstrate the futility of write-ins against a major party candidate on the ballot. Write-ins can only prevail under extreme circumstances, and none were present in these races. In Lobb’s race against Bill Taylor, he received a fairly constant 2%-5% share of the vote across the precincts in District 86, along with a slight uptick of 6% in absentee ballots. Vause, on the other hand, managed to crack 10% in a handful of precincts: Aiken 3, Aiken 4, Graniteville 16, and Warrenville 41. Yet Vause also flamed out completely in other precincts, the worst for him being North Augusta 28 with 2 votes out of 639 cast. Whether or not Vause would have done any better in the Republican primary is arguable. What isn’t arguable is that Mike Hunt remains a popular Sheriff.

County Referendum – The referendum to change the Aiken County form of government to Council/Manager went down to defeat 38,757 (61%) to 24,558 (39%). Though the referendum was carried in a handful of precincts in the City of Aiken’s south side and Cedar Creek, and performed respectably in the rest of the City of Aiken and North Augusta, it was defeated by wide margins in the valley and most of the rural sections of the county. As a sponsor of the referendum on the County Council, I was disappointed to see it go down to defeat, but I recognize that it had a fair hearing before the public including a spirited debate in the pages of the Aiken Standard. Ironically, while several opponents of the referendum campaigned on a platform of keeping “the right to vote” for Treasurer and Auditor, only 16,855 votes were cast for Treasurer while 38,757 voted to retain this (largely) unexercised right in the referendum.

Sincerely,

Gary Bunker
Aiken County Council
District 7

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