If Eugene Platt had picked sides, he wouldn't be in this mess. He'd be on the ballot as the Green Party candidate in S.C. House District 115, which includes part of James Island and Folly Beach. Instead, his campaign has taken a detour to the federal courthouse.
After he lost the Democratic Primary (Platt's attempt to pull in broader support), South Carolina election officials have refused to put him on the ballot for any party, citing a state law against primary losers getting a second chance in the general election.
To a point, it was all about the numbers. South Carolina allows candidates to run for the same office under different parties, with their total support determining whether they win. In 2006, Platt was the Democratic candidate in the general election, but he also ran as the candidate for the Working Families Party, which earned him an extra 400 votes.
But he was still 40 votes short of incumbent Rep. Wallace Scarborough, a James Island Republican.
Platt had considered running on a third ticket as the Green Party candidate, but he didn't follow through with the nominating process. As he tells it, 57 voters chose a straight-party ticket for Greens. So, had he gone through with the Green nomination, he'd be fighting for his reelection right now.
Learning from his mistake, Platt pursued the triple-threat in his second race for the Statehouse seat earlier this year. He filed for the Democratic Primary, only now facing competition, and then quietly collected the nominations of the Working Families and the Greens. But things went south on June 10, with Platt's loss to Democrat Anne Peterson Hutto. He collected less than 38 percent of the primary vote.
Before you could say, "Two out of three ain't bad," the Working Families decided against putting their candidates (all of whom lost in the Democrat Primary) on the ballot, likely concerned about accusations of pulling votes from Dems.
That left the Green Party — with a history of having no such qualms — as Platt's only opportunity to get on the ballot. But he'll have to get past the state law preventing primary losers from popping back up in November and a Democratic Party worried that he'll be a spoiler in what could be the closest election this year.
South Carolina law doesn't even get to the specifics of the election process before explicitly stating, "No person who was defeated as a candidate for nomination to an office in a party primary or party convention shall have his name placed on the ballot for the ensuing general or special election."
That's the meat of the state's argument against Platt, but Green Party leaders and the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the case on Platt's behalf, say it violates the right of voters to pick their representative and the right of the Green party to pick its candidate.
Neither side is suggesting the state doesn't have a right to impose a "sore loser" statute. Courts have affirmed these laws in other states. But Platt and his supporters say that doesn't apply here. In a typical sore loser situation, the candidate who didn't win in the primary seeks to get on the ballot some other way — by wooing another party's nomination or by petition.
But, in Platt's case, he'd secured the Green nomination prior to the Democratic Primary. He doesn't want a second chance at the primary, he wants a shot at the general election.
"I had my chance to be the Democratic Party nominee," he says. "I lost and that's fine. I don't want to be the Democratic nominee."
I Pledge Annoyance
The only issue in front of the courts at this point is the state law, but local Democrats are prepared to volley their own ammunition — a pledge Platt signed when he registered as a primary candidate.
"This is a legal issue we will pursue," says Charleston County Democratic Party Chair George Tempel.
Platt combats the pledge by noting its specific language stating that a candidate will not place his/her name in contention for the general election as a petition candidate or through a write-in campaign. It makes no mention of a previously secured third-party nomination.
To Tempel, there's no difference. The pledge means that the party doesn't want to see your name again in November if you lose the primary.
"He can nitpick all he wants," Tempel says.
Platt concedes that he didn't pay attention to the details when he signed the pledge — details he now says allow him to honor the pledge and still run for the Greens.
"The goal was to be on three ballot lines," he says. "I don't remember going through any convoluted scheming to look at the words precisely and say, 'Well, that won't apply to me.'"
The Democratic Party has yet to act, but Tempel has encouraged the state party to get involved.
"This would be damaging to the party," he says. "We'll do everything in our power to keep him off the ballot."
With her own campaign in full swing, Hutto says she's paying attention to the issues, not the other names on the ballot.
"My focus isn't going to change based on who I'm running against," she says.
Platt says he's not trying to spoil anything. He really thinks he can win.
"I don't need 51 percent of the votes," he says. "I could win with 35 percent."
But securing 35 percent support isn't a given. In their 2006 face-off, Scarborough won with about half the district's votes. Platt will have to bite a chunk out of that support, and also make up for the loss of faithful Democrats, including some who supported him in June.
As a long-serving member of the James Island Public Service District board, Platt is hoping that service (and his familiar presence waving at motorists near election day) will pull in support. He's also hoping the Green name will carry a little more weight this year — less for the party's broader political platform and more for its convenient similarity to the growing environmental movement.
Platt is ditching his Democratic blue signs this year for new green ones with the Green Party's 2008 slogan: "Live Green. Vote Green." And he says he's ready to start campaigning, worried he'll hurt his chances if he waits for the court decision.
Showing off a sign last week, Platt gave one of his trademark roadside waves. He's ready to run, whether he's on the ballot or not.