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Jeff Hammond switches to GOP

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Republicans rally around clerk of court for 2020 re-election

By Greg Summers

After serving as Lancaster County’s Democratic clerk of court for 18 years, Jeff Hammond revealed Thursday that he was joining the GOP.
“Today, I am announcing that I will seek re-election in 2020 as a member of the Republican Party,” the 60-year-old Lancaster native told an applauding, standing-room-only crowd in the Historic Lancaster County Courthouse.
County GOP Chair Sandy McGarry, who had publicly targeted Hammond for defeat in 2020, cheered his decision and pledged her party’s commitment to keeping him in office.
“Things have certainly changed around,” McGarry said, bringing a red, campaign-style sign into the courtroom saying “Republican Jeff Hammond.”
For the first time in Lancaster County history, all seven countywide elected officials – auditor, coroner, probate judge, sheriff, solicitor, treasurer and clerk of court – are now Republicans. As recently as 2011, all seven offices were held by Democrats.

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Political sea change
Hammond’s conversion is the latest indicator of a political sea change that has swept South Carolina over the past three decades.
It began in 1986 with the election of Republican Gov. Carroll Campbell. Since then, only one Democrat – Lancaster-native Jim Hodges – has been elected governor, serving one term that ended in 2003.
And at the county level, the GOP has made swift, overwhelming advances. Until about 15 years ago, most local elections were won by Democrats in the June primaries, without GOP opposition.
Hammond said that was the case when he was first elected clerk of court in 2000.
The county now has only three elected Democrats left, none elected countywide. Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell of Lancaster represents S.C. House District 44. State Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden represents the 27th District, which cuts into the county’s eastern edge. And county council member Charlene McGriff represents District 2. Democratic council member Larry Honeycutt withdrew from the party this year.
The county’s municipal and school board elections are nonpartisan.

State chairman
The local significance of the 180-degree swing was not lost on Drew McKissick, chairman of the S.C. Republican Party.
“We’ve completely taken the courthouse in Lancaster County,” McKissick told the exultant crowd at the courthouse.
“In rural counties, where traditionally for years, everybody was a Democrat… we’ve had sort of a cycle of political evolution that’s taken place.”    
McKissick was there for Hammond’s announcement along with Glenn McCall, a Republican National Committee member, and S.C. Secretary of State Mark Hammond. Mark Hammond and Jeff Hammond are cousins.
McCall said the GOP’s ascendance is easy to understand from changes in voting patterns. “This didn’t just happen or fall out of the sky,” he said.
More voters in Lancaster County are now casting straight-party ballots for GOP candidates. 
In the 2018 midterm election, 61 percent of the county’s voters cast straight-party Republican ballots, up from 57 percent in the 2016 general election.
Those numbers have been trending up since 2004, said S.C. Rep. Brandon Newton (R-Lancaster).
Hammond didn’t go into detail about his reason for switching parties, but said looking ahead to his next election in 2020, he couldn’t ignore the trend in polling data.
He also pointed out that party affiliation has little bearing on the clerk of court’s responsibilities, which include running the courthouse, managing criminal, family and civil court proceedings, and overseeing the collection of child-support payments.
“If re-elected, I plan to work for the entire county just as I’ve always done in the past,” he said. “And that’s never going to change.”

Rapid change
The switchover from Democrats to Republican in Lancaster’s countywide offices, which Hammond’s move completes, started in 2012, when Carrie Helms was elected county treasurer. She succeeded longtime Democrat Richard Rowell, who died in office.
Newton, one of several GOP officials who spoke at Thursday’s event, said he once doubted the top county offices would ever switch entirely to the GOP.
“I certainly never thought it would happen this fast,” he said.
Lancaster County Sheriff Barry Faile, another of Hammond’s backers Thursday, switched from Democrat to Republican in 2013.
Faile said Hammond is a capable, conservative elected official who is mindful and vigilant when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars.
“I checked this morning, just so I could say this. For the last 10 years, every year he has come in under budget, so he could give money back,” Faile said.    
Hammond, who served on the Lancaster City Council from 1986-90, is one of the best-known clerks of court in the state. He is a past president and vice president of the S.C. Association of Clerks of Court and Registers of Deeds.

Democratic view
Lancaster County Democratic Chairman Keith Grey said Hammond has always served county citizens with a high level of professionalism.
“While I truly believe that he would be easily re-elected on his outstanding record, his concern for a possible defeat due to straight-ticket voting is understandable,” Grey said.
But countywide offices, such as clerk of court, are more service-oriented in scope than political, Grey said in a written statement.
He believes Hammond’s party switch is another sign that “this might be a good time to raise the whole issue” of having partisan elections for non-political, administrative countywide positions.
“These are jobs that should be filled purely on the basis of competence and track record, not some attribute that is no more relevant than hair color to getting the job done,” Grey said.
A change to nonpartisan local elections would take legislative action by the General Assembly and a voter referendum, said Rep. Norrell.
“I think it’s a good idea,” she said. “There is nothing political about any of those offices.”    

Follow reporter Greg Summers on Twitter @GregSummersTLN or contact him at (803) 283-1156.