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Nov 28, 2023, 6:15pm EST
politics

Republicans won a historic urban upset last week. Can they repeat it?

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The News

Last Tuesday, for the first time in nearly 150 years, Charleston, S.C. elected a Republican mayor. But when former state legislator William Cogswell declared victory, Democrat Mika Gadsden was there to celebrate. The next day, on her Twitch stream, Gadsden played the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” theme over incumbent Mayor John Tecklenburg’s concession speech, playing up her own role in beating him.

“You keep rolling up that DNC bus like it means something, in a city that has displaced the Black voting bloc that you need and want and desire,” said Gadsden, who ran for mayor, won 1,057 votes, and then endorsed Cogswell in the runoff. (His win margin: 569 votes.) “You can bring in all the fish frys, all the Clyburn, all the Cory Bookers, all the Kamalas … but you’ve eroded that bloc, and now you’re looking to them like, oh, where you at?”

Cogswell’s victory, right before the Thanksgiving holiday, was a highlight in a mediocre Republican year. In Kentucky, Republicans lost a winnable race for governor; in Virginia, Democrats recaptured the state legislature. From Indianapolis to Spokane, when Democrats tied GOP candidates to Donald Trump or the religious right, their coalition — college-educated liberals, non-white working class voters — prevailed.

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But in Charleston, and in the other places where Republicans won upsets this year, they broke that coalition.

They ran candidates whom Democrats struggled to link to the far right, or to unpopular limits on abortion, tactics that worked for President Joe Biden’s party in other races. They reached out to Republican voters who always show up for presidential elections but usually skip local races. And they channeled urban voters’ frustrations about high housing prices, homelessness, and crime — not enough to vote for a candidate like Trump, but just enough to reject a flawed Democrat.

“Republicans would be silly to ignore this,” said Logan McVey, who managed Cogswell’s campaign — and who, in 2021, helped elect a Republican mayor of Columbia, the state’s capital city. Both are Democratic strongholds in presidential elections. “Yes, we’re Republicans,” McVey added. “Yes, we believe that government shouldn’t be in business; it should be the other way around. But we’re not so into divisive social issues and these problems that everybody else is wrapped around the axle about.”

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In the two South Carolina races, noted McVey — both nonpartisan, but with the major parties endorsing candidates in runoffs — the Republicans used the phrase “potholes aren’t partisan.” And in both races, Republicans picked up some working-class Black voters who felt that development was leaving them behind.

“Black folk just can’t afford to live here,” Gadsden told Semafor. “How had he let down the black community? He’d done little to nothing to create truly affordable housing options for working class Black residents.”

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David’s view

Republicans were in a lousy mood this month, bickering over why they did so poorly in off-year elections. This was supposed to be the cycle when some candidates cracked the post-Dobbs abortion code — and even as Virginia Republicans made progress on that front, they lost.

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Their wins, as dramatic as they were in places like Charleston, revealed a strategy that can work in some races, but is not yet scalable at the federal level.

In Manchester, N.H., Republican Jay Ruais was elected mayor in the same sort of two-stage, non-partisan (or not entirely partisan) race as Cogswell. In an all-party election, he consolidated the GOP vote; in the runoff, he drove up turnout among Republicans and peeled votes from Democrats, prevailing in a city that backed Biden over Trump by 14 points.

“We did not talk about national politics,” said Ruais strategist Ethan Zorfas. “We did not get into fights on social issues, or any of these big issues that we see pop up in these federal and state elections. Jay essentially ran a one-issue campaign on the homeless crisis.”

Democrats had been in power while homelessness increased in Manchester; that issue resonated, and attacks on Ruais’s Republican brand didn’t. In Charleston, when Cogswell had served in the state legislature, he’d voted against two “heartbeat” abortion bans — prohibiting the practice after six weeks of pregnancy — and didn’t support “constitutional carry,” which allows gun owners to carry firearms without restrictions or permits.

Tecklenburg, the incumbent, was in trouble before the race began. Murders in the city had surged after the 2020 pandemic, and while the rate came down this year, Cogswell ran ads invoking May 2020 riots (“the mayor’s office did nothing”) and promising to “give police the support that they need.” Democrats attacked Cogswell over his support from culture warriors Moms for Liberty, but those ties were tenuous; the same attack connected better in cities and states where Republicans had worked with the conservative “parental rights” group, or had clear conservative voting records.

After the first round of the election, Cogswell also surprised Democrats by winning over Gadsden, sitting down with her for a 40-minute interview about development and housing issues where they could find agreement.

“We don’t agree on everything,” Cogswell told her. “Two opposing sides can come together for progress.”

Tecklenburg won majority-Black precincts anyway, and added to his vote total in the runoff, after a boost from Democratic Rep. James Clyburn. But he didn’t unite Democrats, and other candidates who’d challenged him in the first round said he’d played a weak hand poorly.

“There’s been a lot of development, increased traffic, increased housing costs — you fill in the blank,” said Clay Middleton, a Democrat who placed third in the first round of voting and endorsed the mayor afterward. “When you’re seeking a third term, you have to address all of those things.”

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The View From Democrats

Republicans celebrated their November wins as proof that the party could compete anywhere. Democrats added a caveat: Those campaigns and candidates did not have the vulnerabilities that a Trump-led GOP will in 2024.

“Cogswell was Republican enough to unify the Republicans, but also non-partisan enough to attract some defectors from the mayor’s coalition,” said Sam Skardon, the chair of the Charleston County Democratic Party.

But what if Trump wasn’t the nominee? Skardon saw an opening for Republicans, with fresh evidence that “open-minded” Democrats could support a GOP candidate if they were convinced that they had no MAGA DNA.

“I actually think if lightning struck, and somehow Nikki Haley ended up being the Republican nominee, we could have a similar problem,” said Skardon. “I think some Democrats might say, ‘she’s not Trump, she’s not as crazy,’ and would give her a look.”

In a Tuesday interview on Fox News, Cogswell endorsed Haley for president.

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Notable

  • In the Post & Courier, before the election, Emma Whalen looked at how Republicans navigated the Moms for Liberty issue.
  • In the Washington Post, Isaac Arnsdorf and Josh Dawsey surveyed the problems facing RNC chair Ronna McDaniel, who’s gotten attacked by GOP candidates for the party’s weak off-year win record.
  • And Semafor’s Shelby Talcott reported on how Haley’s new Americans for Prosperity endorsement came together, and how a major conservative group decided she was “the strongest non-Trump alternative.”
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