S.C. state lawmaker Sandy Senn, a Republican who made national headlines after she helped defeat a near-total abortion ban in South Carolina, has drawn a challenge from her party’s right flank.
State Rep. Matt Leber, R-Johns Island, confirmed his plans to run against the incumbent Charleston state senator in the newly redrawn Senate District 41.
The seat stretches from West Ashley to Johns Island and Ravenel before reaching into parts of Dorchester County, including Ridgeville, as well as Colleton County, around Cottageville.
In an exclusive interview with The Post and Courier, Leber questioned Senn’s conservative bona fides, including her 2017 vote to support a gas tax increase, as well as a bill that requires all bars, restaurants and venues that serve alcohol after 5 p.m. to carry a $1 million liability insurance policy.
His greatest critique was on abortion, specifically Senn’s efforts to block the state’s so-called fetal heartbeat bill that bans abortions roughly six weeks into a pregnancy. He called her “CNN Sandy” for her national profile.
“I am a conservative. We know from her record that she’s a progressive Republican — and I say that lightly,” Leber said, clarifying, “And the word I say lightly is ‘Republican.’”
Leber described himself as pro-life, and said he is comfortable with the current six-week ban, which also includes exceptions for victims of rape and incest, fetal anomalies, as well as protections for the life of the mother.
“Sandy was OK with South Carolina being an abortion destination state. She joined with Democrats to vote their platform, and then she went on CNN and bragged about it,” Leber said. “We have a fundamental disagreement on the right to life.”
The GOP primary election, which will take place in the spring of 2024, will test whether Republican primary voters will embrace or reject Senn’s more moderate approach to abortion.
“Anybody who describes abortion with two words is simply uninformed,” Senn said, referring to the phrase “pro-life.” She then added, “I don’t think my position at first trimester or 12 weeks is unreasonable.”
Senn is one five women in the state’s upper chamber. The group, made up of three Republicans, one Independent and one Democrat, received national attention for leading a bipartisan, three-day filibuster in April that stopped legislation that sought to outlaw abortions, with limited exceptions from the moment of conception.
They call themselves the “sister senators.”
Despite their all-female blockade, the state’s six-week abortion ban became law and was later upheld by the S.C. Supreme Court after multiple legal challenges.
All three of the state’s GOP women senators have all said they expect opposition in 2024 from men in the House who voted repeatedly to make almost all abortions illegal in the state.
Senn said she is not surprised to hear Leber made his bid official, but she also welcomed him to the race.
“Any competition is healthy, and I will tell you that I also expect other challengers,” Senn said.
Leber is in his first term representing House District 116 after winning his seat in 2022. He quickly rose to a leadership position as chairman of the Freshman Caucus.
He also confirmed he plans to simultaneously defend his House seat on the ballot next year while at the same time he challenges Senn for the GOP Senate ballot nomination.
It is not illegal under state election law to seek two separate offices at the same time.
Senn has represented Senate District 41 since 2016. But the district — and its voters — have changed. After the lines were redrawn during the redistricting process that takes place every 10 years, District 41 is decidedly more rural.
Senn said the change to the district doesn’t necessarily mean a change in Republican values.
“I don’t think just because someone lives in a rural area that it makes them rabid or different on certain issues,” Senn said, adding that she spent her early years in Branchville, in Orangeburg County.
“If they want somebody who is uber, uber right-wing then I would say Matt would be their person,” she said. “But I find that you get more work done if you move more toward the middle.”
Senn enters the race with an incumbent’s cash advantage. She had $21,500 available as of June 30, according to campaign disclosure figures. Leber’s House account balance was at less than $1,350, according to his second-quarter filings.
Leber said he is confident about his chances, saying he has support from people across the state who have been begging him to challenge Senn.