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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Sally Atwater, wife of the late GOP strategist and former Republican National Committee chairman Lee Atwater, died Tuesday, according to her family and party officials across South Carolina. She was 69.
Atwater died “surrounded by her daughters, son in laws and shihtzus,” her daughter, Ashley Vazana, posted on Facebook.
Officials said Atwater had recently been in hospice care. In 2019, The Associated Press included Atwater in a story about cancer patients seeking the use of experimental drugs. At the time, Atwater was fighting lung cancer that had spread to her brain and spine.
Described by Republican strategist Luke Byars as a “force” in the state’s politics, Sally Atwater was associated for some primarily with her late husband. Lee Atwater served as an adviser to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and as chairman of the Republican National Committee. The focus of the documentary film “Boogie Man,” Lee Atwater came to be known for his aggressive, “dirty tricks”-style political tactics.
Working at the U.S. Department of Education in the 1980s, Sally Atwater remained in Washington after her husband’s death in 1991, working at several federal agencies. She later returned to South Carolina, where she went into education and became active in Republican circles.
Wading into elected politics, Atwater came in second in an eight-way GOP primary for South Carolina’s top public education post in 2014, forcing fellow contender Molly Spearman — who topped her by less than half a percent — into a runoff.
In that campaign, Atwater was endorsed by former President Bush and his wife, Barbara, who said her “real-life experience” would “serve all stakeholders of South Carolina's education system well. ... Barbara and I endorse and commend her to one and all."
Spearman went on to win the runoff by double digits, was victorious in the general election and was elected to a second term in 2018.
On Tuesday, Spearman told AP she saw Atwater as “a caring and devoted mother, educator and friend” who “loved South Carolina and always gave of herself to make her community, state and nation a better place.”
In 2016, Atwater served as an at-large delegate to the Republican National Convention from South Carolina, initially campaigning for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush ahead of the state’s first-in-the-South presidential primary before ultimately supporting Donald Trump’s candidacy.
On Tuesday, Byars recalled Atwater as "an incredible woman who taught us to never give up and how to always fight for what we believe in."
Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.