COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Republican state Rep. Nikki Haley and Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen wrapped up months of blistering campaigning Tuesday as voters decided whether to elect the state's first woman governor or return a Democrat to the office following eight years of the largely divisive tenure of Gov. Mark Sanford.
Haley, a 38-year-old state representative from Lexington backed by Sarah Palin and tea party activists, has stridently vowed to upset entrenched GOP interests in Columbia and oppose plans by Washington Democrats, including the Obama administration's health care plans. She has sought to link Sheheen to the president and tagged him as a "liberal trial lawyer."
Sheheen, a 39-year-old state senator from Camden, has stressed his own record of compromise in the Legislature, earning the endorsement of the state's Chamber of Commerce and even a faction of Republican activists. He's slammed Haley for failing to pay taxes on time and fully disclose her income in state ethics forms and has tried to link her to Sanford.
The race appeared to be tight. With a quarter of the state's precincts reporting, the lead flipped between the candidates by the minute. The margin was almost never more than a few thousand votes and ballots still hadn't been counted in several of South Carolina's most populated areas.
The governor's race took center stage among numerous statewide races and several high-tension runs for Congress, including Rep. John Spratt's run for a 15th term in the 5th District and Rep. Joe Wilson's re-election push in the 2nd District. U.S. . Sen. Jim DeMint, seeking a second term after becoming a key figure among the nation's conservatives, faced token opposition from Alvin Greene, a virtually unfunded Democrat known more for his oddball antics and felony obscenity charge than his politics.
While Haley was a favorite to replace term-limited Sanford after her win in a four-way GOP primary in June, Sheheen has kept the race competitive. One recent poll had Haley about 9 percentage points up, but Sheheen more than kept pace in raising money as both kept a barrage of ads on the air.
Haley raised $3.9 million for the campaign and spent $3.7 million; Sheheen raised $3.9 million and spent $3.8 million.
Some voters said they tired of the on-air ad battle but more closely identified with Haley's ideas.
"I think it's time for a woman governor," said Gail Kittrell, a 69-year-old retired school secretary in Columbia. "I tried not to listen to any of it. I got sick and tired of all of it, all of the mudslinging."
But others said they believe Sheheen, despite being a Democrat, could repair relations with Republican lawmakers who so often clashed with Sanford, a Haley advocate whose second term ends in January.
"I think a lot of independent voters, me included, are sick and tired of every issue getting twisted into a partisan debate," said Mark Binkley, a 58-year-old state agency lawyer and self-described independent who voted for Sheheen. "I really want to see the governor and the General Assembly work together."
Through the campaign, Haley was beset by criticism raised when she attempted to score points. She boasted of working as a bookkeeper for her parents' clothing business, yet both the candidate and the company were penalized for not paying taxes on time. She tried to slam Sheheen for missing votes in the Legislature, yet she also neglected to attend meetings.
Her campaign did question Sheheen's influence in the state Senate's selection of worker's compensation commissioners because he represents clients involved in those cases, though he's recused himself from those votes. Republicans also take issue with his work winning money for workers hurt on the job, especially by claims of repetitive stress injuries costly to business.
Less of a factor since June has been two men's unproven claims of affairs with Haley, which did not get in the way of Haley's primary win. Neither Sheheen nor partisan political groups made the allegations a central focus in debates or advertising campaigns.