When Adair Ford Boroughs thought about tossing her hat into South Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District race, people asked her to run as a Republican, she said.
After all, the district — which contains parts of Aiken, Barnwell, Lexington, Orangeburg and Richland counties — is solidly red. It has been represented exclusively by the GOP since 1965, and in 2016, decisively voted for President Donald Trump over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by almost 18 percentage points, according to one national analysis. Still, Trump had greater margins of victory in four of the state’s six pro-Trump congressional districts.
Raised in a double-wide trailer to blue-collar parents in Williston, Boroughs, 40, grew up Republican and stayed that way through most of her college years at Furman University, she said.
But despite growing up conservative and still carrying values heavily touted by the Republican party — her Christian faith, belief in limited government and fiscal responsibility, advocacy for working people and her support for the troops and her veteran brother — the Democratic Party better reflects her core values, Boroughs said.
Namely, Boroughs is pro-choice when it comes to abortion and supports women’s reproductive rights, saying government has no business getting between women and their healthcare providers. She also thinks the government should offer a public health care option — breaking hard with Republicans on those issues. She is also a strong advocate for LGBTQ rights, saying the government should “stay out of our bedrooms.”
Frankly, Boroughs said, running as a Republican in this rural, red district would have been the “easier path.”
“But I chose honesty, and the honesty is that I’m a Blue Dog Democrat,” Boroughs said. “I wasn’t going to run under a false pretense. I wasn’t going to lie to people.”
With a “D” appearing next to her name on the ballot, Boroughs faces tough odds on election day.
She’s given incumbent U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson his toughest competition in the last decade, raising more money last quarter than any other candidate who’s entered the 2nd District race since 2010. She’s caught the attention of political forecasters, some of which have shifted the race toward her.
It’s tough to know just what impact Boroughs has had on the voters in the district. There have been no significant polls published on the race, and the COVID-19 pandemic has curbed traditional campaigning, forcing candidates to reach voters virtually or risk spreading the virus or being criticized for recklessness.
But some Democrats see hope for Boroughs in what they say are political tides that are shifting in favor of Democrats.
Former S.C. Democratic Party Executive Chair Amanda Loveday compared Boroughs’ campaign to U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham’s 2018 long shot bid at a congressional seat held by Republicans for decades.
“I think the numbers we have seen really do emulate what we saw with Cunningham,” Loveday said. “They both were running against … flawed candidates, and this boost of people looking for reasonable leaders is definitely going to give her the benefit.”
Cunningham wrestled the 1st Congressional District seat from Republican control by employing a “district over party” approach on the campaign trail. After being elected, he continued to follow that policy, breaking with the majority of Democrats on several major votes, including a $3 trillon COVID-19 stimulus package in May.
Boroughs too, is willing to break with her party when it comes to national issues in favor of more moderate stances that may better benefit her district. For example, she is against eliminating private insurance in favor of socialized medicine, but she is still for providing a public option.
“That is the rhetoric that’s working across the country, not just in SC-2,” Loveday said.
Boroughs said Cunningham’s win served as an indicator that a Democrat could win a seat in South Carolina.
But, “Red Bank is not Charleston and it never will be,” former S.C. Republican Party Executive Director Luke Byars pointed out, adding that the 2nd District is “ruby red.”
“The demographics just don’t look promising if you’re a Democrat,” Byars said. “You have a lot of conservative voters there that have voted time and time again for Republicans for the last couple of decades from (former U.S. Rep.) Floyd Spence to Joe Wilson. It’s become more a tradition to vote Republican.”
Running as a Democrat “totally overshadows” Boroughs’ more conservative values, Byars said. Though she’s run ads — which feature her blue-collar background and her driving a truck through the district — that “could have been run by any Republican running for Congress,” Byars said those are unlikely to sway lifetime-Republican voters.
Boroughs also faces tougher odds due to it being a presidential election year, where voters often vote for a single party straight down the ticket, he added. According to the S.C. Election Commission, more than a million voters across the state voted straight ticket in 2016.
“It’s going to be hard for a Democrat to convince conservative voters in that district to take the time and go through the ballot and pick out specific candidates they want to support,” Byars said.
Loveday is more optimistic, saying that conservative values have shifted over the years. Voters are looking for a candidate that understands the importance of bipartisanship, she added.
“I truly believe the majority of this country is tired of the bickering,” Loveday said. “And people like Adair provide a refreshing look at what politics and governance and and should be.”
The people who have known Boroughs for years before she announced her congressional run said she wouldn’t have chosen to go up against longtime incumbent Wilson, who has held the seat since 2001, if she didn’t think she could win.
“It was like, ‘The numbers say this but/and this is Adair, so this is different,’” said Caroline Mauldin, who worked with Boroughs and a team to launch Charleston Legal Access, a nonprofit that helped provide legal representation to people who don’t qualify for a public defender. “Because she wasn’t going to do it halfway. That is another real part of her personality or her make up.”
In a recent interview with The State, Boroughs joked that she doesn’t “do anything in life without doing my homework,” and she took a hard look at the values of the 2nd District residents when deciding to run.
“I knew where I felt the district was, that there were a lot of people looking for change and the values that were foremost were the values of hard work and focus on the people here,” Boroughs said. “We have a congressman making political junkets around the world with his wife on the taxpayer dime in the name of foreign relations, and nobody is fixing the watershed issue in Cayce, nobody was fixing the Columbia canal. Nobody was getting broadband to farmers in Aiken County.”
Congressional guidelines require spouses to pay for any extra expenses, such as occupancy fees or meals, when traveling as part of the delegation. A spokeswoman for Wilson’s office said Roxanne Wilson follows those guidelines.
Who is Adair Boroughs?
Boroughs grew up in Williston — a part of Barnwell County — as the daughter of a teacher and a carpenter.
She experienced one of the most defining moments of her life early on during her senior year of high school, when she woke up to her father crying about sending her to college.
Boroughs, who had her eyes set on Furman University, hadn’t realized her father was worried because he couldn’t afford to send her to college. She had been banking on scholarships but realized that those weren’t a guarantee. Boroughs decided she was going to convince her father that she didn’t want to go to college, she said.
“It was one of those moments for me where I’d been very selfishly focused on what I wanted on college, and just really had a moment of realizing where parents are, where my parents were,” Boroughs said. “I think about that moment all the time when I talk to people … and realizing, hearing these worries. Everybody wants what’s best for their kids. I don’t care what political party you are and where you are in the world, and I feel like I hear that from people when they are talking.”
Boroughs did attend Furman University in 1998, where she studied mathematics.
There, Boroughs began dedicating her time to public service, a reoccurring theme in her life, college roommate Allison Sullivan said. Boroughs was awarded for her public service activities while at the university, and her service continued after graduation, Sullivan said.
“She graduated in mathematics and had all these opportunities available to her, and she decided to go into public service and teach public high school and teach math,” Sullivan said.
While teaching at a public school in Greenville County, Boroughs “had a passion for doing good in the world and making the world a better place,” said Lydia Neher, who taught along side her.
There, Boroughs expressed an interest in running for public office, Neher said.
“It didn’t surprise me because when we were teachers, she told me one day that she wanted to be a governor,” Neher said. “And I said, go for it. She’s always thought big. She’s always thought that she was going to do something great in the world.”
While in the classroom, Boroughs contacted state lawmakers to talk about issues in education, an experience that pushed her into the next chapter of her life.
“Part of why I went to law school is because I was talking to my members of the state Legislature about issues that matter to me as a teacher, but no one was listening,” Boroughs said. “So, I needed some credibility — something else besides being a teacher — to get them to come to the table and get them to listen. And when I look back on that, that’s very disheartening to me.”
Boroughs attended Stanford Law School, where she says she graduated near the top of her class.
Boroughs’ studiousness during her time in law school is an example of her character, Neher said, noting that Boroughs, who she stayed in touch with, spent most of her time in a local coffee shop completing her work.
“I’m sure there were other students in that area that would go to that coffee shop, but her commitment to her learning and the amount of time that she spent there learning was so extensive that after the three years and upon getting her diploma, Starbucks gifted her the chair in the coffee shop that she sat in,” Neher recounted. “She doesn’t let up on anything. She always pursues the best in anything she does.”
Boroughs still has the chair, and uses it when she reads to her daughters, a campaign spokesperson said.
Next stop: U.S. Department of Justice
When Boroughs left law school, she had several career options, but again chose the path of public service, Sullivan said.
Boroughs worked at the U.S. Department of Justice for six years prosecuting tax crimes. There, she said, she gained the ability to explain complicated tax code to juries, represent the United States and handle tough questions from judges.
“I ended up there because, frankly, I became pretty morally indignant about some of these big tax shelters,” Boroughs said. “My daddy worked hard and paid his taxes. Other people should be paying their fair share, too.”
After her time at the Department of Justice, Boroughs made the move back to South Carolina, where she clerked for U.S. Judge Richard M. Gergel, providing legal research and advice to the judge.
“She had all the opportunities in the world to go to all these different place, to go to these high dollar law firms … (where) you get paid a lot of money to work at these firms,” Sullivan said. “And she’s like, ‘I don’t think that’s for me. I don’t think that’s my calling.’”
While at the district court in Charleston, Boroughs worked on the trial of Dylann Roof, who killed nine black parishioners at the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. church. She and a team of clerks evaluated motions from both sides, set parameters for jury selection and considered what evidence should be released to the press, among other things.
She called that case the most impactful during her time as a clerk.
“I lived that case day in and day out for months, and it changed my perspective in a lot of ways about how far we think that the hate on issues of race has been buried, and it’s not,” Boroughs said. “You cannot look at the evidence in that trial and not see the hate and not see the pain that community is in every day.”
Boroughs was approached with a new opportunity around 2017 to head Charleston Legal Access, a nonprofit focused on providing affordable legal representation to working class individuals who otherwise would not qualify for a public defender.
The scrappy, brand new start up was looking for an executive director, Mauldin said.
“It was going to be a really, really tough job,” Mauldin said. “She just knew that this was the thing, this is the way that she could serve people like she’d grown up with, like her family. I had such admiration for that courage because it couldn’t have been an easy decision for her to make, … but she did it without hesitation and so much grace and enthusiasm.”
“To me it was like, ‘Wow, that is such a level of self sacrifice that you don’t often see.’” Mauldin added. “I think she’s done that throughout her career.”
Boroughs said her time at Charleston Legal Access revealed how much she loved “that role of fighting for and getting things done for people.”
“That job to me is very similar to what I want to do in Congress,” Boroughs said. “And that is represent like normal, every day people working to make ends meet and …. I’ve spent the last four years of my life representing people that way.”
Deciding to run
Boroughs has been hinting at a run for office for several years, her friend say.
After the 2016 election, Boroughs and Mauldin discussed whether the Williston native would serve on a public commission over text.
“And I said, ‘Absolutely, the only reason you shouldn’t do it is if we can convince you to run for Congress instead,’ ” Mauldin recalled saying. “And to my absolute glee — I think I screamed — she wrote back and said, ‘Took the words right out of my mouth.’”
Mauldin wasn’t the only one to support Boroughs’ candidacy.
“I’m somewhat of a risk adverse person, so I was like, ‘Wow, Adair, that’s a really big task.’ This is a Lexington County district, and I’ve lived in Columbia for a very long time, and I know its hard for a Democrat, quite frankly, to wrestle in that district,” Sullivan said. “The more that I think about it, I’m like, why not? Every time she’s been told she can’t accomplish something over the course of her career, she’s proven people wrong.”
Boroughs said she ran to represent people in the district like her dad, the same motive that pushed her toward Charleston Legal Access.
“I grew up knowing what its like to struggle, knowing what it’s like for every day people. And I bring that perspective, plus the skill set that I have earned over the last 20 years,” Boroughs said. “I have a skill set where I can fight for the people of my district effectively at the national level, but I also have the perspective of growing up here in a normal working class family, and what those struggles are.”
Several of Boroughs friends met in Columbia to discuss launching the congressional campaign, Mauldin said.
There, the group swapped stories about Boroughs over the years.
“I got to sit around a table and listen to people who’ve known Adair her entire life tell these amazing stories about how every bit of the person she is now, she has always been,” Mauldin said. “There was just like such joy and a real admiration among all those people, and the integrity. This is not a person who’s character has changed throughout the years. She’s always shown up as who she is, and she’s someone who sees other people first.”
Mauldin added that it was Boroughs’ character and willingness to listen to those with differing views that made her confident in the Democrat’s ability to win.
“Having her apply those energies, those very significant energies as our elected official will translate into resources for the 2nd District,” Mauldin said. “I have no doubt about that. And I think that’s what people really care about.”
A cornerstone of Boroughs’ campaign has been pushing her accessibility, something she has promised to maintain if elected. She has criticized Wilson publicly for holding few town halls, a claim that the Wilson campaign has rejected.
She said she expects to hear opinions that differ from her own among 2nd District residents.
“Not everyone is going to be happy with me all the time. My daddy always said that if everybody is always happy with you, you’ve lied to somebody. That’s true,” Boroughs said. “There are going to be people that are unhappy, but you represent them, and they get to tell you that. They get to tell you that they don’t like what you did.”
Sullivan said, despite her and Boroughs’ personal political differences, she would still support her as a candidate.
“We need people who are good at problem solving, who are good at consensus building, that can get things done and kind of break through that partisan morass that sort of envelops Washington D.C. these days,” Sullivan added.
Despite the tough race ahead, Boroughs has remained optimistic. She said she looks forward to focusing on the issues facing the 2nd District ahead of national issues.
“What I tell voters a lot who are like, ‘Well, I like you, but your a Democrat.’ I say, ‘You know what, give me two years. Vote me out if you don’t like what I do in the first two years,’ ” Boroughs said. “I really intend not to disappoint and get things done here.”
Emily Bohatch helps cover South Carolina’s government for The State. She also updates The State’s databases. Her accomplishments include winning multiple awards for her coverage of South Carolina’s prison system. She has a degree in Journalism with a minor in Spanish from Ohio University’s E. W. Scripps School of Journalism.
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