Tuesday, October 19, 2010

House leaders rally base in general election campaign

GOP targets 75-seat majority with immigration, voter ID, tort reform

Posted by Greg Hambrick on Tue, Oct 19, 2010 at 9:00 AM

I had planned to begin this week's column regarding the general election pitch by state House Republicans with the general observation that the issues South Carolina voters are really worried about are things like jobs, schools, and infrastructure instead of tort reform and voter ID. Fortunately, Winthrop University's latest poll has likely Palmetto State voters making the argument for me.

The voters polled said categorically that the job market is the number one problem facing South Carolina. Two and three were the economic crisis and education. Politics and government rated a distant fourth, with only six out of every 100 people polled saying that was the most important problem.

It doesn't surprise me at all. The candidates and voters I've spoken with over the past few months have said the same thing. But the members of the GOP state House caucus have apparently been speaking to someone else. The caucus unveiled its Drive to 75 campaign in a statewide rollout last week. The name is an allusion to the party's very real opportunity to capture the largest majority it has had since taking control of the House more than a decade ago.

But it's the meat of the message that has us scratching our heads. According to House Speaker Bobby Harrell, the GOP Caucus met twice in the past two months to come up with a five-part re-election agenda. We wouldn't label it wholly irrelevant — most if not all of these issues could find support from a majority of S.C. voters — but labeling them priorities certainly suggests a disconnect to the issues the average voter will be fretting about come Nov. 2.

The GOP agenda prioritizes mandated photo IDs at the voting booth, increasing roll call votes in the Statehouse, capping state spending (for the day far, far from now when the state is flush with excess), riding the coattails of an "Arizona-style" immigration crackdown, and limiting courtroom payouts for things like workers' compensation. Several of the agenda items are promises the House has made in the past but either ended up stalled by the Senate or vetoed by the governor.

"These five things we'll make sure we do," says Harrell, while recognizing that there are other things that need to be tackled. "In November, after the election, the caucus will come together again, and we'll talk about the rest of the agenda that we want to see accomplished."

Certainly, several of the issues on the Driver to 75 agenda appear in the daily paper — maybe on page six or page seven. But what's on the front page? Aging roads and bridges with no money for maintenance, struggling public schools incapable of improving, college students facing rising tuition costs (due in part to state funding cuts), and a sales tax proposal that would put a higher price on your groceries, prescriptions, and utilities.

What's even more confounding than the real struggles ignored in this campaign pitch are the arguable victories the Republicans can point to over the last few years. Like an increased cigarette tax that preserved state Medicare benefits. Or sentencing reforms that will ease the burden on our budget-busting prison system. There's even the big Boeing success story and the potential for as many as 10,000 jobs that could come from that prize-winning pig. They even could have run on constitutional questions on the ballot in November like increasing and preserving the state's rainy-day fund.

House Republicans likely have those 75 seats in their grasp, even without this campaign push. Currently they're at 72, and there are at least two (maybe three) highly competitive Democratic seats in Charleston County alone. And the promises here don't lay out the House agenda for 2011. It gives you a look at the five things the body is likely to pass along party lines on day one. So what's the point? The drama playing out on the blogosphere (particularly on Will Folks' FITSnews) is that Harrell is facing a potential revolt in the caucus. A high-profile statewide campaign that low-balls expectations while highlighting Harrell's promises to conservatives may be about reinforcing GOP support, not swaying independent voters.

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