Calm Before the Storm in S.C.

With Media Buys, Palmetto GOP Senate Race About to Intensify

Posted March 22, 2004 at 5:18pm

The Republican field to replace Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) includes a former governor, a sitting Congressman, a wealthy businessman with a famous last name and a former state attorney general.

And yet, the defining trait of the contest — widely seen as one of the Republicans’ strongest chances to pick up a Democratic-held seat this cycle — has been the utter lack of engagement between the candidates.

“This is a different kind of race for South Carolina,” admitted Terry Sullivan, campaign manager for Rep. Jim DeMint (R). “This has not been a typical grassroots-oriented campaign for anyone.”

Characterizing the current state of the campaign, Mike Green, a spokesman for wealthy real estate developer Thomas Ravenel, said, “This is the calm before the storm.”

DeMint will roil the primary waters with an ad buy that will hit the airwaves either today or Wednesday and keep him on television through the June 8 primary, according to knowledgeable Republican sources.

Green said that deciding when Ravenel should begin running ads is a “problem we are facing,” adding: “We have debated back and forth about when we are going to go on the air.”

The start date and tone of the ad campaign are most essential to DeMint, who is considerably less well-known statewide than either former Gov. David Beasley (R) or former state Attorney General Charlie Condon (R).

First elected to the Up Country 4th district in 1998, DeMint has established a conservative — and decidedly low-key — record during his tenure in the House.

Although much of the primary vote is consolidated within DeMint’s Congressional seat, he must be competitive in the more blue-blood Republican areas along the coast, including Charleston, to advance to the expected June 22 runoff.

Sullivan said the campaign will show $2.5 million raised through March with $1.5 million left to spend on the race, a total consistent with the goal of “focusing the resources we have into a window where it counts most.”

“We are at 11 weeks” from primary day, said Sullivan. “In the overall scheme of things that is a lifetime.”

DeMint’s media strategy mirrors the successful approach utilized by then-1st district Rep. Mark Sanford (R) in the 2002 governor’s race.

Little known at the contest’s start, Sanford raised more money than either Condon or Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler for the GOP primary and used it on a broad advertising campaign.

Sanford held a 39 percent to 38 percent lead over Peeler in the primary and went on to a convincing 60 percent to 40 percent runoff win two weeks later.

Richard Quinn, a consultant to the Beasley campaign, suggested another lesson was learned in the governor’s race, which devolved into nastiness in the primary’s final days.

“Attack campaigns tend to blow up in your face,” he said. “There is a tradition of gentility in South Carolina.”

Of course, the more polite the primary, the better for Beasley due to his name ID edge.

The other Senate candidate who must boost his name identification statewide is Ravenel, who, although his father is a longtime state Senator and former Member of Congress, is not well-known in his own right at this point.

Although time may be of the essence, “Thomas has always said we are going to hold our money” for as long as possible, Green said.

Ravenel, who donated $1 million to the campaign last summer, must also weigh the timing of another personal donation, a move that under provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act allows his opponents to take larger individual contributions.

“We can’t stick any money in until the end of the quarter,” said Green, adding that if and when Beasley passes the $1 million raised mark, then none of Ravenel’s three main competitors will be able to capitalize on the higher limits.

As a result of the disengagement, all of the campaigns agree that currently Beasley and Condon lead the field.

Beasley, who served as the Palmetto State’s governor from 1994 to 1998, is almost assured a place in the runoff due to his high name identification among primary voters.

“The polling indicates the unanswered question is who is going to be in the runoff with Beasley,” said Quinn.

If no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote on June 8, a near lock given the six-way Republican field, the two top votegetters advance to a runoff.

Condon has surprised many observers with his solid fundraising performance, as he had nearly $1 million in the bank at the end of 2003.

He has also drawn press for his decision to run this race in a manner almost diametrically opposed to his past campaigns, including his 2002 bid for governor.

Labeled as a conservative firebrand during his time as the state’s top cop, Condon lived up to his reputation in the governor’s race but fell far short of the runoff, taking only 16 percent.

To prove that he has changed stripes for this race, Condon refused in an interview to even discuss the tenor of the race to this point.

“I am determined in this race to lay out issues and run it from a policy standpoint,” he said.

Laying in wait is state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum, who is not seriously opposed in the Democratic primary.

Tenenbaum has been embroiled in a budget fight with the Legislature over education funding in recent days, but has dedicated nearly all of her off hours to raising money.

Her campaign could not provide an estimate on how much she had raised since the start of 2004, but Tenenbaum had $678,000 in the bank at the end of December.

“While our Republican friends have been playing patty cake with each other, Inez continues what she has been doing for the last six years, fighting for South Carolina’s children,” said spokesman Adam Kovacevich.