From Anna Allen’s home in the Charleston suburbs, the looting and the riots on her TV seemed far away.
Allen, a real estate agent, spends her days convincing clients to move to places like Mount Pleasant, where she has lived for 20 years. Safety, she says, is as much a selling point as the schools.
But when the 41-year-old mother of two watches the dark and grainy political ads that warn of an ominous future with lawless cities and anarchy if Democrats win in November, the message doesn’t resonate. Instead, Allen said, the message she’s getting feels like it was manufactured by “out of touch” DC political operatives who don’t understand voters like her.
“They have nothing to do with South Carolina and the real issues that we care about,” Allen said of the loop of law-and-order rhetoric she’s seeing these days in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, a Democratic-held seat in Trump territory that is one of the most competitive U.S. House races in the country.
Then, she clarifies.
“But law and order matters to me,” Allen said.
She plans to vote for South Carolina Republican Nancy Mace for Congress, and will cast her vote for President Donald Trump.
That response from voters like Allen is encouraging to Republicans up and down the ticket in South Carolina who are running on a campaign message that doubles as a warning: America is a nation under threat, and the GOP — the party in control of the White House, the U.S. Senate and South Carolina — candidates are the only ones who can save it.
It’s a message threaded throughout campaign ads. It’s become part of stump speeches and was even woven among a handful of state lawmakers’ goodbyes, offered at the end of the legislative session, expressing worry over America’s future after November.
But is it a message that is resonating, particularly for Republicans, whose votes the GOP must clinch to win back South Carolina’s toss-up district?
Law and order a ‘cutting issue’ for GOP voters
After the May 25 death of George Floyd, while in Minneapolis police custody, a wave of protests erupted nationwide in a rallying cry for police reform and racial justice. Those demands for change rang out in South Carolina in both Charleston and Columbia as demonstrators marched through the streets shouting, “No justice! No peace!”
Five days later, as day turned into night, peaceful protests in the two cities gave way to chaos. Businesses were broken into, windows shattered and police cruisers were set ablaze. From New York City to Portland, America’s cities exploded with civil unrest. Trump responded in an all-caps tweet, advocating, “LAW & ORDER!”
But it was the more explosive responses in larger metro areas that mostly appeared in a 30-second campaign ad from Mace, a state representative who is challenging Democratic U.S. Joe Cunningham for South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District.
“Arson. Looting and anarchy. From Portland to Charleston, America is under attack,” a deep-voiced narrator says in the TV spot. “Nancy Pelosi knelt to the mob and so has Joe Cunningham. The violent mob feels emboldened. Our country is at risk. Enough is enough.”
During her opening statement in the first televised congressional debate last month, Mace said her opponent’s Democratic Party “aids and abets a violent and out of control mob.”
Kyle Kondik, of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said this message is being used widely among Republicans. He said GOP candidates are taking their cues from Trump and parroting the president’s law-and-order rhetoric.
In the first presidential debate Tuesday night, Trump doubled down, insisting that Democrats would destroy the country and falsely claimed that former Vice President Joe Biden wants to “defund the police.”
“I think this is essentially a message designed to tie Democrats to the excesses of protest and appeal to swing voters. Whether it is working is an open question,” Kondik said.
“Against someone like Joe Cunningham, Republicans want to nationalize him and tie him to aspects of the left and of the Democratic Party that they believe voters will see as unappealing. It is a classic strategy,” Kondik continued. “Cunningham, meanwhile, wants to run as his own man and as essentially a bridge between the two parties.”
Drew McKissick, chairman of the S.C. Republican Party, insists the message of law and order is working and has broad appeal.
“It is a cutting issue. It is moving voters, moving voters nationally definitely. We see that in the polls and swing states,” McKissick said. “You’ve had that issue play out on TV screens every night. Even if it’s happening in Portland, Oregon, you’re seeing it on your TV screen sitting here in South Carolina.”
A recent Pew Research Center survey found that about eight in 10 adults had heard or read a lot about showdowns between police and protesters, including 78% of adults who identify as Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents, and 80% of those who identify as Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents.
Yet, despite the proliferation of news about confrontations between law enforcement and protesters, an August survey from Pew showed that violent crime was not the most important issue for voters as they decide which presidential candidate will earn their vote.
Instead, the economy was the issue that resonated with the most voters surveyed between July 27 – Aug. 2, with 79% of poll respondents saying it is “very important.” After the economy, 68% said health care and 64% said U.S. Supreme Court appointments were very important issues. The survey was conducted before the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Among Trump supporters, the economy and violent crime were the most salient issues.
In South Carolina, the economy and law and order are top-of-mind issues among likely voters, both Republican and Democrat.
A Sept. 30 Quinnipiac poll of likely S.C. voters found 21% listed the economy and 20% named law and order as the most important issues for them in deciding who they will vote for in the state’s U.S. Senate contest between Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and Democrat Jamie Harrison.
When broken down by party, law and order was the most important deciding issue for likely Republican voters.
And it was the coronavirus pandemic for likely Democratic voters.
Take David Barrow, a Goose Creek resident and local school board member.
“She’s a law and order, safety-first type of person, and that’s exactly what we need in Washington to support the conservative agenda,” Barrow said of Mace, who he plans to vote for along with Trump — a package deal, he says.
Barrow said he is supporting Mace for a number of reasons this year: Her fiscal conservatism, her opposition to abortion, her support of the 2nd Amendment and her stance against offshore drilling. But security also is driving him.
“I think that people want law and order. They do not want the unrest and the civil disobedience and the rioting. They are looking for security and safety.”
Fear and anxiety pitches tend to work better with those voters who identify as conservative, said Theodore Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, who studies Black voting behavior.
“It’s why Republicans tend to be stronger on defense, or talk about law and order because their base eats that up.”
Who’s ‘motivated’ by the message
Allen, the real estate agent and mother of two in Mount Pleasant, identifies as a conservative, not a Republican. She stresses that she is not a “party person.”
“I vote Republican because as a conservative that’s my best option,” Allen said, listing out issues close to home that include infrastructure, traffic, schools and anything that affects quality of life on the coast.
But Allen also wants Trump to be successful if he’s elected to a second term, which is why she views electing a Republican to represent South Carolina’s 1st District as imperative.
“We’re in a climate where all politics is national, whether we want it to be that way or not,” Allen said.
Cunningham represents a district where Trump triumphed over Hillary Clinton by 13 percentage points in 2016. Yet, in 2018, voters here didn’t send Republican Katie Arrington to Congress after she tried to tie Cunningham to national GOP-aligned talking points, like claiming he supported an open border policy. Cunningham narrowly won the 2018 contest, with a 1.38 percentage point margin.
Already, similar tactics are playing out in the race, like Mace equating a vote for Cunningham to a vote for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, an identical case Arrington also tried to make in 2018.
Cunningham, who is one of the most vulnerable Democratic House freshmen, told The State he does not think voters in the 1st District will fall for the nationalized messages they are receiving.
“People know better than that,” Cunningham, 38, said of his 2020 opponent’s ads. “I’ve always stood with law enforcement.”
But the following week, it was Mace who secured the support of the South Carolina Fraternal Order of Police. When she shared the endorsement news on her social media pages, Mace used the hashtag #defendnotdefund.
In an interview, Mace said her law and order message is connecting with Lowcountry voters beyond the Republican base.
“It resonates with me as someone who grew up here in the Lowcountry, and as a single working mom,” said Mace, who is 42 and lives on Daniel Island, a wealthy suburb of Charleston.
South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District is majority-white, according to the U.S. Census, with about 19% of its population identifying as Black. It has been this way since 2011 redistricting process, when the state created a seventh congressional district, pushing many Black residents into the state’s 6th Congressional District in 2010.
For Black voters specifically, fear is not a good motivator, Johnson said.
“If it was, there would be the highest turnout in every presidential year,” he said.
South Carolina Sen. Marlon Kimpson, a Black Charleston Democrat who backed Biden and is up for reelection, told The State the ads are a far stretch from reality, put on by “desperate candidates” that only highlight their own failures.
The fearful messaging has no basis in what S.C. Democrats are in fact considering in terms of police reforms.
“First of all, no one can tell you with a straight face that there’s any legislation put forth in the General Assembly or local government to defund the police,” Kimpson said. “It’s just simply not an issue at all. We have never discussed this at all in the General Assembly or, to my knowledge, in local government.”
In fact, Kimpson acknowledged, efforts in the Legislature to combat law enforcement issues actually would spend even more money on police, using the expansion of police-worn body cameras as an example.
“Irrespective of what you hear people chanting, I know of no one trying to create an issue to take advantage of what they see nationally,” Kimpson said. “It’s not applicable.”
Jim Davis, who previously served as the S.C. GOP’s 1st District chairman, said any message made to voters here must be as nuanced as the district itself, where Democrats have been making gains. Most recently, a Democrat won an August special election when a Democrat was elected to a James Island State House seat that was previously held by a Republican.
“The 1st District is not a homogeneous district. To think one message is going to play the same across the same district here, well, I don’t think it will,” Davis said. “This election is going to be won, I think, by getting voters who are in the middle to move one way or the other. Those in the middle could be persuaded if the message is sincere and has a ring of validity.”
Davis says he plans to vote for Trump in the fall. He declined to share who he was voting for in the congressional race, but said he has been a solid Republican voter all his life.
A ‘party-to-party fight right now’
Joanne Jones, president of the East Cooper Republican Club, said some of the Republicans she talks to have been confused by Mace’s ad about what happened that night, and they worry that the fear-based messaging is a campaign misstep.
“I don’t think it’s a suburban housewife message,” Jones said. “We’re a weird Republican district here, and I think they’re missing the mark right now.”
Some Republicans across the country have become disenchanted with Trump and the GOP he embodies.
Stacie Arcomona, a self-described independent voter, was once heavily involved in her local Berkeley County Republican Party. Now, the computer network technician who lives in Goose Creek admits she has not paid her party dues and “does not plan to give another red cent until it becomes the Republican Party again.”
Getting federal spending under control is her biggest issue, which was why she supported Mark Sanford, a staunch fiscal conservative, when he represented the district.
Arcomona blames Trump for the loss of Republican representation in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, and is adamant that Sanford could have beaten Cunningham in the 2018 general election if the president had not endorsed Arrington in the primary.
“The party left me. I didn’t leave the party,” said Arcomona, 49.
She said the law and order message is not working for her and calls it a non-issue in the congressional race.
“We’ve not had a law and order problem here except for that one day,” Arcomona said, referring to the May 30 riots in Charleston, “and quite frankly, I hold (Charleston) Mayor Tecklenburg and the police chief responsible for that more than anybody.”
The message does, however, make for a stronger appeal in local and state races, she said. In the race for a Berkeley County State Senate seat, Arcomona plans to vote for Republican Brian Adams, a retired police officer from Goose Creek who, in a new ad says, “And you know I’m going to fight for our law enforcement.”
Arcomona expects Berkeley County to largely go red up and down the ballot in November. But referring to her own voting plans in the 1st Congressional District race, she hinted that her county, “might have a little more blue than last time. I know it will have at least one more.”
Allen knew people who were downtown when the rioting in Charleston happened, but she also isn’t worried about anyone defunding the police where she lives no matter who wins in November.
“I will vote for every single Republican because they will help our president do his job. What they did downtown, the Democrats must answer for. They can deny it but they allowed it,” she said.
So when the latest TV ad begins to play with warnings about an America in chaos, Allen ignores it and accepts it.
“I don’t want to see it, but it has to be done, “ Allen said with a sigh. “It’s a party-to-party fight right now.”
This year, she said, it’s about doing whatever it takes to win.
Related stories from The State in Columbia SC
Caitlin Byrd covers the Charleston region as an enterprise reporter for The State. She grew up in eastern North Carolina and she graduated from UNC Asheville in 2011. Since moving to Charleston in 2016, Byrd has broken national news, told powerful stories and documented the nuances of both a presidential primary and a high-stakes congressional race. She most recently covered politics at The Post and Courier. To date, Byrd has won more than 17 awards for her journalism.
Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) has covered the S.C. State House and politics for The State since 2017. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville in 2013. She previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News. She has won reporting awards in South Carolina.
Support my work with a digital subscription