SC superintendent candidate Ellen Weaver cruised to victory in GOP runoff. How’d she do it?

·14 min read
Meg Kinnard/AP

National school choice advocates are touting Republican S.C. education superintendent candidate Ellen Weaver’s win in this past week’s primary runoff as one of the biggest victories for school choice in U.S. history.

Weaver, a conservative think tank CEO and unapologetic supporter of diverting public tax dollars to private schools, trounced teachers advocate Kathy Maness by nearly 28 points in Tuesday’s GOP runoff election, sending shockwaves through the state’s public education community.

Weaver’s resounding victory, which came just two weeks after she finished nearly 25,000 votes shy of Maness in the six-way GOP primary, surprised many election watchers, including some Republican Party insiders who expected a closer contest.

“I thought it was going to be a two- or three-point race, myself,” said Katon Dawson, former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, who surmised going into the runoff that either candidate had a chance.

Current South Carolina GOP chairman Drew McKissick said he expected Weaver to win, given her close relationships with conservative activists in the state, but he didn’t anticipate a blowout.

So how did Weaver do it? What changed in the two weeks between the primary and the runoff?

There are a number of factors that could have shifted the race in Weaver’s favor down the stretch, but the most likely explanations are candidate consolidation and outside spending.

Maness, a former educator and leader of South Carolina’s largest teachers organization, was arguably the most moderate candidate in the crowded Republican field.

So when only she and Weaver were left standing for the runoff, the voters who had supported one of the other hard-line conservative candidates likely gravitated to Weaver.

Weaver also got a huge late boost from national conservative political action committees that took a keen interest in the race.

School Freedom Fund, a PAC funded by billionaire Wall Street options trader Jeff Yass, pumped more than $750,000 into the race during the two-week period between the primary and the runoff — 20 times more than either candidate’s campaign spent over that time, according to a strategy memo penned by the president of Club for Growth Action, an affiliate of School Freedom Fund.

The cash infusion paid for two ads that blanketed television stations across the state — one that championed Weaver as a defender of parents’ rights and opponent of leftist “indoctrination” in schools and another that targeted Maness’ “liberal” record and connected her to national Democratic bogeymen.

“The best commercial of the entire season, all the way around, was the commercial with (Democratic House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi … and (Vice President) Kamala Harris … lavishing these praises on Kathy Maness,” Dawson said. “People called me and said, ‘I didn’t realize y’all let Democrats run in your primary.’”

The predictable dropoff in voters after the primary, especially more moderate ones, and late key endorsements from Republican U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and state Rep. Russell Fry, R-Horry, fresh from beating U.S. Rep. Tom Rice in the 7th District GOP primary, also likely played in Weaver’s favor.

In the end, the confluence of factors were too much for Maness to overcome.

Jon Parker, her campaign manager, said they simply didn’t have the money to combat the attacks from Weaver and her outside allies or to adequately push the counter-narrative that their opponent was unqualified for the job.

“For a large swath of Republican voters, basically all they heard was you got a person who was aligned with Biden and endorsed by Pelosi,” he said. “That’s not going to fly with the Republican electorate.”

A ‘clear choice’ in the runoff

Despite adopting an increasingly conservative posture after Weaver attacked her “liberal” record, Maness has historically opposed school vouchers and tuition tax credits and taken more middle-of-the-road positions on COVID-19 classroom policies.

Weaver and the other four Republican primary contenders, even the two who later ended up endorsing Maness, embraced more hard-line stances in support of school choice and parents’ rights, and in opposition to so-called critical race theory.

When only Weaver and Maness remained in the race, Republican voters were better able to distinguish between the candidates.

“The primary had a number of conservative school choice advocates running as candidates, and that vote was split,” said Ryan Gillespie, Weaver’s campaign manager. “In the runoff, there was a clear choice between our campaign promoting a change and our opponent’s campaign that was arguing for more of the same.”

Maness got 30.6% of the vote in the six-way primary race — easily enough to lead the pack — but hardly improved on that number in the runoff, picking up just 36.1% of ballots cast.

Weaver, on the other hand, got just 23.3% of the primary vote, but shot up to 63.9% in the runoff, as voters who either supported another candidate or didn’t vote in the superintendent’s race in the primary appear to have overwhelmingly come her way.

Dawson, the former South Carolina GOP chairman, said Maness appeared to have maxed out her support in the primary, as virtually everyone who would consider voting for her did so in that race.

“At the end of the day, it was the education bureaucratic community versus the base of the Republican Party,” he said. “And the base of the Republican Party is bigger.”

There is some early evidence that a number of independent voters and Democrats may have crossed over to vote for Maness in the Republican primary, Dawson said, but it simply was not enough.

While there was once a time in South Carolina politics when moderate Republicans and Democrats could coalesce to elect a state superintendent candidate — until about a decade ago, the education superintendent had been one of the rare statewide offices in South Carolina where Democrats were competitive — that time may have passed.

“The education community used to have enough school boards, teachers … to win the races,” Dawson said. “Now there are so many opinions on how education should be. … There are a lot of wants and needs out there that aren’t being filled by the current education community.”

Weaver aided by conservative super PAC

Both the Weaver and Maness camps dropped money on ads and mailers between the primary and the runoff, but their spending was dwarfed by the School Freedom Fund PAC.

The conservative political action committee, which promotes school choice as the “structural solution to dramatically improve education in America,” spent a whopping $754,495 on Weaver in the runoff, according to the Club for Growth Action, a conservative super PAC affiliated with the School Freedom Fund.

“The difference between the primary and runoff was Club for Growth Action and School Freedom Fund,” Club for Growth Action President David McIntosh wrote in a strategy missive, which said both PACs were committed to keeping anti-school choice Democrats and Republicans out of office.

Weaver, who serves as president and CEO of the Palmetto Promise Institute, a South Carolina-based think tank that lobbies state lawmakers in support of conservative legislation, including school vouchers, was a 2021 Club for Growth Foundation Fellow.

McIntosh wrote in an emailed statement that the PAC feared Maness was on her way to a runoff victory and saw an opportunity to insert itself in the race to help elect Weaver, whom he described as a school choice expert and the “perfect person” to stand for parents in South Carolina.

“School choice is the new litmus test in the Republican party as parents demand their education tax dollars fund students not corrupt and failing systems,” he wrote. “South Carolina public schools rank #43 according to US News; defending the status quo is indefensible.”

Dawson said he found the attack ad featuring clips of Pelosi and Harris especially effective.

After it got picked up on social media and Scott, the top-polling Republican in the state, endorsed Weaver, “the race was over,” Dawson said.

Parker, Maness’ campaign manager, said the ads tying his candidate to national Democrats were obvious mischaracterizations, but highly effective ones.

“This was a person who wouldn’t know Kathy Maness if she was standing right next to her with her name tattooed on her forehead,” he said of Harris. “Pelosi didn’t even say her name right.”

The clips of Harris and Pelosi were taken from National League of Cities events at which Maness introduced the Democratic heavyweights in her role as the organization’s president, and they thanked her for the introduction.

“The fact that (Harris) said her name was enough. And they knew that,” said Parker, who called the ads “good political trash.”

While critics may grouse that a Pennsylvania billionaire’s PAC paid for the ads, Dawson said that’s inconsequential for most Republican voters.

“As long as you’re not getting (your money) from Communist China or Cuba, they don’t care,” he said.

‘Relationships matter’

Weaver, a longtime aide to former Republican U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint who since 2013 has served as president and CEO of the think tank they co-founded, has built deep relationships with many of the top Republicans in the state.

Her connections paid dividends when it came time to secure political endorsements from state and national Republican leaders, said McKissick, the state party chairman.

“Folks know where she stands,” he said. “The party is sort of a small family, if you will. Folks have relationships with other leaders and they talk to one another and look to them for voting cues and so forth. That makes a big difference.”

Weaver racked up endorsements from dozens of state lawmakers and nationally prominent Republicans, including Scott and former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. Some, such as Scott, campaigned with Weaver in the final days of the campaign, and many others flooded their mailing lists with emails encouraging voters to show her their support.

Weaver’s myriad connections also helped her campaign attract the money and resources it needed to push out slick ads and mailers over the course of the campaign, McKissick said.

As of late May, she had raised more money than all other candidates in the race combined, according to preelection campaign filings.

“Relationships matter,” McKissick said. “And she’s got ‘em.”

Turnout impacts

Voter turnout is often low in primary elections, and this year was no exception.

Total voter turnout in the primary was 17.1% and dropped to just 6.8% for the runoff, according to state election data.

While that may sound pitiful, it’s actually better than the last time Republicans held a primary for state superintendent that went to a runoff.

In that 2014 race, which Molly Spearman won, only 16% of registered voters cast ballots in the primary and just 6.3% voted in the runoff, according to state election data.

Considering the superintendent race was the only statewide contest on this year’s GOP runoff ballot, the improved turnout may actually speak to a slightly higher level of excitement about the race.

Unfortunately for Maness, that heightened interest seemed to center on electing Weaver.

“Kathy didn’t create enough emotion to make voters say, ‘Hey, two weeks later, I’m coming out.’ It wasn’t there. It was gone,” Dawson said. “Ellen had the base whipped up with that commercial along with a lot of other stuff.”

Parker said he thought their campaign did a decent job of getting Maness’ primary supporters back to the polls for the runoff and would have had a legitimate shot if turnout had been lower. But far too many low-information voters, likely swayed by Weaver’s attack ads, cast ballots in the runoff for Maness to stand a chance, he said.

It also didn’t help Maness that two other big primary races that may have attracted more moderate or independent voters — the 1st and 7th Congressional District contests — did not go to runoffs. As a result, voters primarily motivated by those races who potentially cast ballots for Maness on primary night may not have returned for the runoff.

Voting data seems to support that hypothesis, as Maness held a 5-point advantage over Weaver on primary night in counties that cast ballots in those high-profile congressional races, but lost to her by 29 points in those counties in the runoff, a roughly 25,000-vote swing.

In the end, Maness won just 10 counties in the runoff after finishing first or tied for first in 38 counties during the primary. With the exception of Chesterfield County, which she won by 1,170 votes, Maness won all the counties she carried by fewer than 1,000 votes.

Her success in Chesterfield, GOP political consultant Walt Whetsell speculated, likely came as a result of the county’s four-way sheriff’s race that went to a runoff. Since sheriff’s races historically drive significant turnout and attract a sizable number of crossover voters, moderate Republicans and Democrats who showed up to vote in that contest likely also went for Maness, who bested Weaver by 35 points in the county.

Looking ahead to the general election

Weaver will face Democrat Lisa Ellis, a Richland 2 teacher and student activities director, in the general election.

Between the built-in advantage Republicans have in South Carolina and the growing unpopularity of President Joe Biden, any Democrat is likely a longshot to win a statewide race this November.

Raising money can be a challenge for any state superintendent candidate. But for a Democrat under the current national conditions, it’ll be “almost impossible,” Dawson said.

Ellis, who is best known for founding grassroots teachers group SC for Ed, raised roughly $28,000 ahead of the primary, according to the latest campaign filings.

Leesa Danzek, a spokesperson for Ellis’ campaign, acknowledged the difficulties of raising money in this environment but said she was confident Ellis stood a chance against Weaver in November.

“We’re already seeing a large number of folks who previously supported Maness in the runoff who are now publicly supporting Lisa Ellis,” she said. “People really want to keep public money in public schools, and that’s something that Weaver has been pretty outspoken against.”

Danzek said she also expects Ellis to attract voters looking for a candidate who is qualified to run the state’s public schools system.

“Whether that’s the direct qualification, like a master’s degree, or the classroom experience of working in a school administrative setting,” she said. “Lisa is the only person with that experience who has had the ear of teachers, parents and students and can speak to that experience.”

Weaver has never taught or worked in a school, and she lacks the advanced degree South Carolina education superintendents are required by law to have. She recently enrolled in an online master’s program at Bob Jones University in Greenville in order to meet the qualifications of the office by Election Day.

“I’ll earn my master’s degree in October in this year ahead of the general election, so there will be no question in the minds of voters,” Weaver said after her runoff victory Tuesday. “But I think what we saw tonight is that the real qualification that matters to the people of South Carolina is leadership, not letters behind your name.”

Dawson agreed that Weaver’s lack of credentials would not prevent her from winning the support of voters in the general election.

“The public just told you they didn’t care,” he said. “At the end of the day the voter can make that choice.”

Parker, however, said he thinks Weaver’s academic situation could be a liability for Republicans in the general election. Polling he did during the primary found a large majority of GOP voters were concerned about the possibility of a judge finding Weaver unqualified and handing the election to a Democrat, he said.

“It should be a concern to the Republican Party in the general election that this race is going to be more competitive statewide than normal because Republicans are vastly more likely to split their ticket and vote against Ellen because she does not meet qualifications,” Parker said.

It’s unclear at this point what would happen if one of Weaver’s opponents or a group of Republican voters filed a lawsuit over her qualifications, but it’s not out of the question that such a challenge could be filed.