Why Is There So Much Mud in South Carolina?

by Stuart Rothenberg October 19, 2011 · 12:52 PM EDT

When South Carolina state Rep. Thad Viers (R) came in for an interview recently, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

I knew that he was a successful, young officeholder who surely was one of the favorites to win in the Palmetto State’s new Congressional district. I knew that he was quite conservative. I also knew that he had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor after threatening a man who had a physical relationship with his now ex-wife.

And then I remembered that Viers is from South Carolina, a state that evokes thoughts of Southern gentility and modesty but is better known for its roughhouse politics, impolitic politicians and rumor-mongering.

After all, this is the state in which allies of George W. Bush spread rumors about Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) during the 2000 GOP presidential race. It’s the home of Rep. Joe Wilson (R), whose outcry during a presidential speech generated so much attention. It is also the state where then-Gov. Mark Sanford first tried to cover up, and then acknowledged, traveling to Argentina to have an affair.

And yes, the Palmetto State is also the place where state Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian inappropriately referred to one of the state’s U.S. Senators. And it is the state in which opponents of now-Gov. Nikki Haley (R) raised questions about her past personal relationships.

If Louisiana and Illinois have been the poster states of political corruption, South Carolina now has earned a reputation as the state where politicians and political operatives behave badly in a variety of ways.

Viers, 33, is a graduate of the Citadel and the University of South Carolina Law School. A one-time executive director of the Horry County (Myrtle Beach) GOP and a district field representative for then-Rep. Henry Brown (R), he was elected to the state Legislature at age 24 in 2002.

When I asked him about any negative personal baggage he might be carrying, Viers mentioned in passing a messy divorce and moved on quickly. He made no mention of the incident that led to his plea on the misdemeanor nor of the plea itself.

When I pushed him on the event, he dismissed it, pointing out accurately that it happened in the past, it received attention in the media and the voters have re-elected him since the controversy.

So I pushed a bit harder and asked how he would respond when an opponent asserted that his behavior raised questions about his character and temperament — questions that should disqualify him from holding a seat in Congress.

I expected Viers to throw himself on his sword, saying his behavior was unacceptable and totally out of character for him. I figured he’d talk about the behavior of the others involved in the incident, as well as about why he had become so angry.

He didn’t do those things. Instead, he said he would respond by noting that, unlike his potential opponents, his positions on the crucial issues of the day were in line with the voters’ views. He would emphasize, he said, his record on spending and taxes.

While I’m skeptical that a candidate in a competitive race can simply ignore a character question (we will still have to see whether Viers has a competitive primary), my meeting with the conservative GOP hopeful caused me to step back a bit and wonder about the state’s nasty politics.

Why does politics in the Palmetto State always have to cross the line?

So I called Jon Lerner, a national political consultant who has worked for many prominent South Carolina Republicans.

Lerner, who originally hails from Minnesota, offered an interesting and compelling hypothesis.

“It’s not true that the state’s politics are nastier than other places,” he said, arguing that there tend to be fewer negative TV spots during a campaign than in many other states.

Because most of the action takes place in GOP primaries, and because those primaries often involve multiple candidates, campaigns are hesitant to go too negative on TV before the runoff, he said. I know this dynamic to be true (I’ve seen it many times in many states), because the candidate doing the attacking in a multicandidate race often damages himself as much as the opponent being attacked, thereby allowing a third candidate to finish ahead of both.

That means negative TV attacks are often limited to the briefest-in-the-nation two-week runoff period.

But, Lerner argued, partially because negative TV attack ads are so difficult to use in multicandidate races, “the unethical characters in politics deliver negative information through other means, including unaccountable bloggers, telephone robocalls, small town newspapers owned by partisans and anonymous mailings.”

These other channels tends to be “below the radar” and often relatively inexpensive, making it easier for rumor-mongers and individual bomb-throwers to distribute “information,” regardless of whether it is accurate or considered in good taste.

Of course this explanation, which I found interesting and persuasive, doesn’t explain all of the bad behavior by politicians, political consultants and anonymous political activists that I mentioned earlier. But at least it’s one way of understanding how a state’s political culture can be affected by its politics.