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Preview: Runoffs in the Carolinas

Primary runoff elections, those quaint southern holdovers from the populist and Jim Crow eras, will take place tomorrow in North and South Carolina. Thanks to angles involving sex, race, religion, and all sorts of skullduggery, the SC Republican gubernatorial runoff has received far and away the most attention of the contests, even though there’s little mystery about the outcome. If Nikki Haley loses, it will be one of the great electoral upsets of recent history. By contrast, the Democratic senatorial runoff in NC could go either way, though primary front-runner Elaine Marshall has to be the narrow favorite over Cal Cunningham. There are also several competitive GOP House runoffs in the two states, including one that is likely to snuff the career of Rep. Bob Inglis.

The brief (two-week) SC runoff campaign has been a bit anti-climactic. By winning 49% of the vote in the primary, Haley made her nomination all but certain barring something very weird. Palmetto State Republicans have held eleven statewide runoffs since 1970, and only once, in the 2006 Lt. Gov.’s race, has a candidate topping 40% in the primary failed to win the runoff (and in that case, the second-place finisher who ultimately won was the incumbent, Andre Bauer, who had 37% in the primary).

Moreover, Haley had enormous momentum coming out of June 8, and an endorsement from the third-place finisher, Attorney General Henry McMaster. But her strangest endorsement by far was from the very man who plunged the entire campaign into turmoil shortly before the primary: blogger Will Folks, who accused Haley of having a brief affair with him when he worked on an earlier campaign.

About the only thing that Haley’s runoff foe, congressman Gresham Barrett, has had going for him is a decent financial advantage since June 8, but Haley’s quasi-celebrity status has largely neutralized that. And as in the primary, Haley’s ham-handed detractors have been her best asset, viz. high-visibility attacks on the sincerity of her conversion to Christianity.

As Haley continues to roar towards victory even as she plays the grass-roots right-wing underdog to the male and allegedly too-moderate GOP establishment, her campaign has become something of a surrogate 2012 presidential struggle, with Sarah Palin getting credit for a well-timed endorsement prior to the primary, and Mitt Romney (whom Haley endorsed in 2008) personally campaigning with her in the runoff.

In GOP House runoffs in SC, local prosecutor and Tea Party favorite Trey Gowdy is expected to end the House career of upstate Republican Bob Inglis, who made the mistake of voting for TARP. Gowdy beat Inglis 39-28 in the primary. In the low country 1st district where the GOP incumbent is retiring, the runoff winner will be historic in any event: state rep. Tim Scott, an African-American, ran first in the primary (with 32%), and is a narrow favorite to beat Charleston County Council Member Paul Thurmond (who won 16% in the primary), son of Strom. Scott has the momentum, the national support (most recently from Sarah Palin), and the “true conservative” mantle, while Thurmond’s been endorsed by several lower-order primary candidates, including one with another famous name, Carroll Campbell III.

In NC, the Democratic battle for the nomination to face Sen. Richard Burr is hard to call. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall led the first round 36-27 (the state’s threshold for avoiding a runoff is 40%), with African-American legislator Ken Lewis, who has since endorsed Marshall, finishing a strong third with 17%. There’s not much relevant precedent for how primary finishers do in runoffs in this state (at least since establishment of the current 40% threshold); in two recent Democratic runoffs (2008 Labor Commissioner and 2004 Superintendent of Public Instruction), the first-place finisher won one and lost one.

The only public poll, by PPP on May 12, showed the two candidates tied. Marshall is benefitting from grassroots progressive support; Cunningham (an Iraq War vet) was recruited into the race by the DCCC. Turnout is expected to be down well more than a half from the primary, and up to a third of the vote could be ballots cast early.

The most notable Tar Heel congressional runoff is in the 8th district, where Republicans are choosing an opponent for potentially vulnerable Rep. Larry Kissell. The first-place primary finisher, self-funded hard-core-conservative Tim D’Annunzio, faces milder-mannered Harold Johnson. According to a recent PPP poll, Johnson is consolidating support from other defeated primary candidates, and leads the flamboyant D’Annunzio 49-39.