It wasn't long ago that state Rep. Thad Viers (R) was the early frontrunner in the race for South Carolina's new Myrtle Beach-anchored Congressional seat.
Viers posted a reasonable six figures in the fourth quarter and had positioned himself as a conservative in the mold of the current GOP delegation. But in January he landed in jail on charges of harassment and dropped out of the race.
Now it's a wide-open Republican primary featuring nine candidates. Not all are expected to cough up the $3,480 to file by March 30, but the contest has the makings of a raucous free-for-all.
And for a seat expected to trend more conservative over the next decade, Democrats believe they have a real opportunity to grab the district this November.
The credible candidates for the GOP nod are Florence attorney Jay Jordan, Horry County Council Chairman Tom Rice, Chad Prosser, former director of South Carolina's Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, and former Lt. Gov. André Bauer.
Despite all the heavy-hitters — three of those candidates raised more than $200,000 last quarter — Republicans following the race still have their doubts.
"The field for us right now is a bit weaker than we would have expected in that none of the contenders can hold a candle to any of the four GOP Congressmen we currently have," said a senior Republican operative in the state who is unaffiliated with any candidate. "I'm just not seeing a lot of excitement about any of them."
One national Republican told Roll Call the party was closely eyeing the race.
"It is South Carolina, it is Myrtle Beach, Republican areas. But just being a new and open seat, you can't take anything for granted," the source said.
Roll Call rates the race as Likely Republican.
The way each GOP candidate sells himself to voters will help determine who can break from the pack. The primary is scheduled for June 12, with a runoff likely later that month.
Prosser, in an interview, called himself a "conservative reformer" and emphasized his proven ability to bring business experience to the private sector. But before serving for two terms in former Gov. Mark Sanford's cabinet, Prosser was twice elected as chairman of the Horry City Council — ammo his opponents could use to paint him as a longtime politician and Columbia insider.
Rice, who was elected as county council chairman in 2010, said his résumé would boost him.