By Jim Ellis
Jan. 20, 2017 — Gov. Nikki Haley’s (R) confirmation hearing to become US Ambassador to the United Nations and an expected quick Senate approval vote will ignite a rather unique South Carolina constitutional and political situation. Tangentially, the evolving lieutenant governor office quandary also has an effect upon the upcoming special congressional election in the state’s 5th District, to occur once incumbent Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-Lancaster/Rock Hill) is confirmed as Office of Management & Budget director.
When Gov. Haley resigns to accept the UN position, Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster (R) will immediately ascend to the governorship. Under the state’s constitution, at least until right after the 2018 election, the Senate President Pro Tempore, a powerful legislative leader, automatically becomes lieutenant governor. In this situation, however, the sitting President Pro Tem does not want to be lieutenant governor, preferring to keep his Senate post.
Hugh Leatherman (R-Florence), who is 85 years old and is a 36-year veteran state senator, has little interest in relinquishing his more powerful leadership position in exchange for a largely ceremonial statewide office. His problem, however, is that the state Supreme Court just ruled that he has no choice. According to the Court’s directive, Leatherman, or whoever sits in the Senate Pro Tem’s office, must fill an open lieutenant governor’s office.
Until the next election, there would be no other legal way to fill the state’s vacant number two slot. A constitutional amendment has already been enacted that will change the state’s electoral system to create a ticket that includes a joint governor and lieutenant governor election vote. But this doesn’t become effective until after the 2018 election is completed.
Speculation is now rampant that Leatherman will resign as Pro Tem, thus allowing his short-term successor to immediately become lieutenant governor. In fact, the new Pro Tem could be sworn into the leadership position, and then immediately take the oath of office for lieutenant governor. This means the new Pro Tem may only have that position for a matter of minutes. Once the Pro Tem slot comes open, Leatherman will again run.
This quirky situation affects the impending Mulvaney special congressional election because a new publicly released Remington Research poll (Jan. 7-8; 778 SC-5 likely special election voters) finds state House Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope (R-York) opening up a commanding lead. But, Pope isn’t even a congressional candidate. Rather, he is already an announced 2018 gubernatorial contender.
Before Gov. Haley, who is ineligible to seek a third term, was appointed to her federal position, Rep. Pope had announced that he was joining what was expected to be a large field of candidates seeking the state’s top political position. Now that soon-to-be-governor McMaster will almost assuredly be seeking a full term as the sitting incumbent, Pope’s gubernatorial plans may well be put on hold. Therefore, he would be free to join the congressional contest, which will yield a three-tiered campaign (primary, run-off, general) likely to culminate in June.
The Remington poll finds Pope leading with 25 percent of the sample group’s preference. State Rep. Ralph Norman and former South Carolina Republican Party chairman Chad Connelly, an unannounced congressional candidate, tied for second with nine percent, apiece. State Rep. Gary Simrill (R-Rock Hill), another unannounced contender, follows with six percent support. Education advocate and former statewide candidate Sheri Few (R), who just entered the budding congressional contest, was not included in the poll.
Once Gov. Haley resigns, which could be as early as next week, this bizarre chain of events will begin to unfold.