South Carolina and the Perils of Single-Party Governance

The Republican Party's continued dominance has fed scandal. But the problem is lack of accountability, not partisanship.

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Forget Kansas. What's the matter with South Carolina? On Friday, Lt. Gov. Ken Ard resigned his office because he was facing indictment for a variety ethics violations, including using campaign money on an iPad, football tickets, and clothes.

It's the latest act in what has become an ongoing Palmetto State circus. Gov. Nikki Haley, loudly heralded as a Tea Party star upon her election, has been a bit of a flop since getting into office. She has alienated her Tea Party base, failed to institute transparency reforms she promised, and seen her approval rating plummet. And her vice-presidential hopes were dealt a blow when her highly sought endorsement of Mitt Romney didn't help to deliver him a win in the state's primary.

The sins of her Appalachian Trail-hiking predecessor, Mark Sanford, need no rehearsing. One reason Sanford was able to finish his term, rather than resigning in disgrace, was that no one wanted his lieutenant governor to take over. Andre Bauer had several run-ins with cops, including having a gun pulled on him and using his state-issued radio to get off for doing 101 miles per hour. He crashed an airplane he was piloting. He was forced to apologize for likening public assistance to feeding stray animals.

The state's travails point to the problem of single-party governance. The Democratic Party in South Carolina is effectively a non-entity (much to party chair and quip-machine Dick Harpootlian's chagrin). There have been two Democratic governors since 1975. Rep. John Spratt, a 28-year House veteran, was bounced from office in 2010, leaving Rep. James Clyburn as the only Democrat in the state's Congressional delegation. Somehow, Democrats allowed Alvin Greene to be nominated for Senate.

It makes sense: South Carolina is a conservative state, and voters ought to elect officials who reflect their views. The problem is accountability, not partisanship. When a party doesn't have much effective competition, there's less pressure to recruit the best candidates and for politicians to keep their standards up. For a good example on the other side of the aisle, consider New York. Over the same time span, since 1975, the Empire State has had a single Republican governor. The GOP's weakness shows in the Democratic record. Before Mark Sanford, there was Eliot Spitzer, a.k.a. Client No. 9, patron of prostitutes. He was replaced by David Paterson, a journeyman career politician who had failed up to the lieutenant governor's office only to fail up into the governor's mansion, where he was plagued by scandal and ineffectiveness. Under Democratic rule, the state repeatedly failed to deal with major budget problems and to pass long-pending gay-marriage legislation.

The natural solution in a state like South Carolina, where voters don't want a more liberal choice, is for a second conservative party to evolve. In 2010, the Tea Party sort of did that. It became a pseudo-party in the primary: long-serving incumbents like Rep. Bob Inglis and gubernatorial front-runner Gresham Barrett were both tossed out by voters who had had enough of business as usual, replacing them more conservative, Tea Party-backed candidates like Haley. Unfortunately for them, that hasn't translated into better governance.

But New York offers some hope for South Carolinians. Voters didn't elect a Republican -- the party was no more effective than the South Carolina Democratic Party, nominating the disastrous Carl Paladino. But New Yorkers did elect Andrew Cuomo, who's been quietly effective and competent. The Palmetto State just needs to find its conservative Cuomo.

Image: Ken Dominick / The State via AP

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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