The state house seat in District 99 became available after Representative James Merrill was indicted on corruption charges and had to resign his seat. Merrill ran unopposed for years until Democrats woke up and decided that they would no longer let Republicans run our government without a fight. I decided to run for the special election to fill the seat, thinking it would be a low-key deal, and I would fly under the radar. Was I wrong! This seat was hotly contested by 4 Republicans who got loads of publicity in a primary and run-off, while local newspapers only reported that they would be running against “a Democrat.” I ran against Nancy Mace, who was chosen only 6 weeks before the election which was January 16, so most of the 6 weeks were during the holidays. Super fun time to canvass. My team ran a great race and definitely moved the needle, getting 43% of the vote, as well as waking up the base and showing that there were actually Democrats in Charleston. Jennifer Gibson was an extremely helpful member of the team. She was planning on running against Larry Grooms, a state senator, in 2020 because he had endorsed Roy Moore in his Alabama race. “That flipped the switch, “said Gibson, “I had to do something because that was not OK.” After my loss, and my decision not to turn right around and start fundraising again for the “real” election in November, Jen took up the cause and decided to run herself.
Jen was familiar to Democratic party influencers in the state and had significant connections. However, SC, due to a lack of Democrats running in the past, had few campaign resources. “My biggest challenge, “said Jen, “was getting my team put together.” Jen initially hired someone she thought would bring considerable expertise to the table, but the two did not click, and the campaign did not move forward. “That really hit my confidence,” admitted Gibson. “It was like a break-up, and it took my head out of the game. In retrospect, I should have had more confidence in myself. I did not need as much staff as I thought. I had a good support system already.”
She then hired an activist to help with organizing, but that role did not work out long-term. Then she hired a fellow Emerge graduate to do field work, but she was hired away by a larger campaign. Gibson now thinks she would have been better off hiring a consultant with a clearly defined role and fees and put more money into digital and mail.
Gibson honed her messaging to communicate that she would be a “new voice for District 99.” She wanted to run against the entrenched Republican establishment. She found it difficult to talk about state government, given the lack of knowledge of SC voters, so she focused on asking about their lives, and what caused them pain or inconvenience. Jen believes that state representatives should be talking about major issues, even if their role will not influence those issues, for example medicaid expansion and a women’s right to choose. “As for the medicaid expansion, “Jen explains, “I felt I would push the Governor to accept it. And Roe v. Wade will get bounced back to the states if overturned.”
In the mid-terms, only two of the SC state race Democratic challengers prevailed. All were running against incumbents, which is difficult. But Democrats are
proud to make the Republicans work for it now and to force them to begin addressing important issues in our state such as education, which has been ignored for decades. Democrats will win in SC in the near future. The gap is narrowing.
When asked what worked well for her, Gibson replied, “working with community partners, such as the SC Education Association, Coastal Conservation League, unions and the AFL-CIO. “ She did get some support from the local party which sent out a mailer to her base.
To future campaigners, Gibson would advice developing a comprehensive plan and budget. She also advises candidates to pace themselves. In the middle of her campaign, Jen developed knee problems which affected her canvassing. The constant stress of campaigning is very taxing, so making sure you have downtime and a large network of supporters is crucial.