Modern tools versus traditional tactics. How Russell Ott defeated Dick Harpootlian

In one sense, the Senate District 26 Democratic primary came down to Calhoun County just wanting a senator from their county.

In another sense, it was all the miles and steps state Rep. Russell Ott put in.

Ott, the Calhoun County Democrat, defeated state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, in Tuesday’s primary in a Senate District that covers parts of Calhoun, Lexington and Richland counties.

Ott will face the winner of a Republican runoff between Chris Smith and Jason Guerry.

In the campaign leading up to Tuesday’s election, Ott trailed in cash flow and television spending. He had to overcome Harpootlian’s larger campaign account, and previous votes for abortion bans and permitless carry of weapons. Ott later voted against the latest fetal heartbeat ban and final constitutional carry bill.

“What I really truly want to do is grow the Democratic Party. I want to put into practice the mentality of the big tent, where people can can bring different ideas,” Ott said. “It’s okay sometimes to disagree, but everyone is welcome and I’m not going to shun anyone.”

When the votes came in on primary night, Ott ran up the score in his home county, which helped propel him to the 120-vote victory.

Within District 26 precincts, Calhoun County had 24% turnout. Richland County had 13% turnout. Lexington County had 17% turnout, according to election commission data.

Ott says most of his door knocking efforts were in Richland and Lexington counties even though he started those efforts in Calhoun County. He also campaigned every day making sure to accept as many invitations to speak at forums or gatherings.

He learned as he got further away from his House district fewer people knew about him.

Ott had Richland and Lexington county voices such as state Rep. Leon Howard, state Rep. Jermaine Johnson, state Sen. Mia McLeod, political activist Jalisa Washington-Price and West Columbia Council member Mickey Pringle advocate for him.

He had other notable names such as state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter and former state Rep. Mandy Powers-Norell, state House candidate Bill Kimler, and former state House candidates Ryan Thompson and Ashlyn Preaux advocating for him, too.

And the efforts paid off.

Even though Ott lost the Richland County portion of the Senate district, the margin was better for him than the margin was for Harpootlian in Calhoun County.

Ott carried 83.74% of the vote in Calhoun’s six precincts in the district.

Harpootlian carried 67.45% of the vote in Richland’s nine precincts that lie within Senate District 26.

The margins were much closer in Lexington County, where 27 precincts lie within the district. Harpootlian carried 53.42% of the vote in Lexington County.

They each carried 13 precincts in Lexington County and tied in one precinct, according to SC Elections commission.

Calhoun County’s absence from the state Senate also may have played a role, Harpootlian said.

Calhoun County has not had a state senator in the upper chamber since Marion Gressette who served from 1936 to 1984.

Harpootlian said when he campaigned in Calhoun County he did not receive the warmest of welcomes.

“I spent some time in Calhoun County. It was not really warm and fuzzy. I mean, they had their hometown boy,” Harpootlian said.

Ott also may have benefited from the four-person Democratic primary to succeed him in his House District. The Democratic primary in House District 93 is now going to a runoff between former state Rep. Jerry Govan and Johnny Felder.

State Rep. Russell Ott, D-Calhoun, and state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland.
State Rep. Russell Ott, D-Calhoun, and state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland.

Campaign style differences

Both Harpootlian and Ott had different campaign approaches when they were communicating directly with voters.

Harpootlian relied on calling voters in a more digitally-focused campaign using more modern tools to speak to voters, which he said was more effective to reach them. He spoke to thousands of voters in the district through phone calls.

“I find it much more effective. I might find it easier to get somebody to answer their phone than come to their door, and I continue to make those calls every night,” Harpootlian said during a forum in May.

Ott’s strategy included door knocking, a more time consuming process that in the past has proved productive for campaigns. It’s a tactic he used throughout the district, he said leading up to the primary.

“What won this race was hard work, going to every single part of the district,” Ott said Tuesday night.

“The steps were put in. The miles were put on the truck. The truck is about to fall apart,” Ott added in an interview on Wednesday.

Going forward, Ott may be in a close race again in November.

Ott acknowledges he still has work to do in Richland and Lexington counties if he wants to win in November, which will require continuing making connections with voters.

“I just have to spend the time to make sure and go have those one-on-one personal conversations and build those relationships and that level of trust and I think that only comes from showing people that you’re authentic,” Ott said. “And it comes from showing up consistently over and over and over again, and letting them get to know the person that you are.”

The district that leans Democratic after the redistricting, leaving only a little wiggle room. In the Senate district, 68 more people voted in the Republican primary than in the Democratic primary.

And in a presidential election, in a ruby red state, with former President Donald Trump on the ballot, Republican turnout is expected to be high.

“You can’t ignore the fact that there’s a presidential race that dictates and drives a lot of turnout. But again, I try just like in the primary, try to focus on those things that I can impact,” Ott said. “All I can control is the time that I put in and how hard I work, try to raise the money, (and) try to make sure that we’ve got a good plan in place.”

Reporter Ted Clifford contributed to this article.