By Jim Ellis
Dec. 22, 2016 — President-Elect Donald Trump’s selection of four-term South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-Lancaster) as Office of Management and Budget Director adds one more special congressional election to the growing number of second season political campaigns.
The SC-5 special election means that five House seats are headed for a replacement vote in addition to maybe a pair of Senate contests. Reps. Mike Pompeo (R-KS-4), Tom Price (R-GA-6), and Ryan Zinke (R-MT-AL) will leave their House seats pending confirmation to posts in the Trump Administration. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA-34) has resigned his position to become California Attorney General, replacing Sen.-Elect Kamala Harris (D).
The Palmetto State’s 5th District is now a safe Republican seat, made so in the 2011 redistricting plan. Before Mulvaney, Rep. John Spratt (D-Rock Hill) held the district bordering North Carolina just south of the Charlotte metropolitan area for 14 terms, first winning in 1982. After Rep. Mulvaney converted CD-5 to the Republican column in 2010 upon Spratt announcing his retirement, the GOP legislature strengthened the seat for the new incumbent. This was accomplished by moving several Democratic communities into Rep. Jim Clyburn’s (D-Florence) 6th District. The latter seat is now the only Democratic district among the state’s seven seats.
The 5th District begins in the South Carolina side of the Charlotte suburbs, encompassing the cities of Rock Hill and Fort Mill before moving further south down Interstate 77 into the suburban Columbia region. The district then takes a turn to the southeast in order to annex communities surrounding the city of Sumter. One-third of the SC-5 constituency lives in York County, which is the population center that borders the Charlotte region. Ten other counties and parts of three more round out the district composition.
Mulvaney has won his seat four times, averaging 57.2 percent of the vote. Both he and Trump scored identical 59-39 percent victory margins last November. Mitt Romney also carried the 5th in 2012, but with a lesser 55-44 percent spread. The district features a 28 percent African American population, down considerably from the days when Spratt represented this territory, and the total Hispanic sector registers 7 percent.
Once Mulvaney is confirmed as OMB Director, the sitting governor at the time — either incumbent Nikki Haley (R) or Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster (R) — will schedule the replacement election. Should Gov. Haley be confirmed as UN Ambassador before Mulvaney officially assumes his new job, then new Gov. McMaster will schedule the special election. If Mulvaney is first, Haley will exercise her responsibility.
South Carolina will use a three-tiered special election system: partisan primaries followed by a quick (two weeks) run-off if no candidate garners an absolute majority, with the general election to then follow. With a February confirmation, Mulvaney’s seat will likely be filled in June or July.
We can expect a crowded Republican field since members of the legislature will not have to risk their seats to enter the special congressional race. For the Democrats, all eyes will be on state Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D-Kershaw), the man who lost to Gov. Haley both in 2010 (51-47 percent) and 2014 (56-41 percent). Should Sheheen enter the race, he will have a good chance of clearing the Democratic field, meaning no run-off election and the opportunity to pool all of his resources for the special general.
Sheheen would make the race competitive, but whether or not he could actually secure a victory may be another story. It would all depend upon which of the Republicans would surface from what promises to be a difficult campaign.
The GOP will be favored to hold the open 5th District, but the process may be a bit more cumbersome than the party leaders would prefer.