Not Your Typical Southern Democrat in South Carolina

by Stuart Rothenberg August 20, 2014 · 2:12 PM EDT

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s Democratic opponent, state Sen. Brad Hutto, wants you to know two things: He has a path to victory against the two-term Republican, and it doesn’t require him to run from traditional Democratic positions.

“I’m not a Blue Dog,” Hutto said proudly during a recent interview with me and my colleague Nathan Gonzales. “I’m a Democrat.”

Hutto doesn’t hide his views, which are right in sync with those of Democrats nationally. He figures that the four-way race for the Senate this year — against Graham, Libertarian Victor Kocher and independent Thomas Ravenel, a former Republican state treasurer of South Carolina — gives him a chance to win the contest with far less than half the total votes cast.

A former county Democratic chairman who was first elected to the state Senate in 1996, Hutto is a trial lawyer who has won his share of big money cases. He certainly has the gift of gab, and during our interview he spun anecdotes, scenarios and election numbers into a cobweb of relationships that, he said, gives him a chance to pull off what most would see as unthinkable — a Democratic Senate victory in one of the most Republican states in the nation during midterm elections with an unpopular Democratic president.

Because of the four-way race, Hutto emphasizes that he can win with only the votes of Democrats. He doesn’t need to tack to the center or reach out to GOP voters. Enough conservatives will vote for Ravenel or Kocher to keep Graham well under 50 percent, the Democrat argues, and if he can get Democrats to the polls in November, he can pull an upset.

In theory, the idea is not unreasonable, since the base Democratic vote in the state normally runs between 42 percent and 45 percent.

Barack Obama drew 44 percent in South Carolina in 2012 and just a hair under 45 percent four years earlier. Vincent Sheheen, the 2010 Democratic nominee for governor in the Palmetto State, drew just under 47 percent of the vote in a losing effort, and Bob Conley, the Democratic nominee against Graham in 2008, drew 42 percent of the vote.

But numbers can be deceiving, and Republicans didn’t run aggressive efforts in any of those races because they didn’t have to.

The problem for any Democrat in South Carolina is that while he or she may be able to get 42 percent or 44 percent of the vote statewide, every additional point is extremely difficult, especially in a federal race. And this year isn’t likely to be any different.

Ravenel, the son of a former congressman, doesn’t have the same appeal that he once did after pleading guilty to charges that he distributed cocaine and after being featured in the reality show “Southern Charm.” And the Libertarian nominee in the race won’t draw much support.

Hutto got into the race initially because he thought that Graham might lose the GOP nomination to a tea party conservative, which could have at least made the November race interesting

National Democrats aren’t giving Hutto much more than the time of day. But since he is in mid-term in the Legislature, he doesn’t have much to lose by sticking with his bid and hoping for a miracle. He has made millions as a personal injury lawyer and has put some of his own money into the race. But, on the other hand, he hasn’t written his campaign the kind of really big check that would indicate he has much confidence in his ability to pull the upset.

Almost every candidate I meet with has some sort of scenario for victory. Candidates rarely come in for interviews and tell me they understand that they are likely to lose. It happens — and it’s refreshing when it does — but it’s rare.

Hutto has an interesting and novel scenario. He can go on and on and on about it. (And he did.) But it’s still just a scenario, and calling him a long-shot would exaggerate his November prospects.