S.C. Democratic Nominee Tiptoes Between Voters, D.C. Donors

Posted March 31, 2004 at 6:24pm

South Carolina Superintendent of Education — and odds-on Democratic Senate nominee — Inez Tenenbaum’s decision in recent weeks to support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and a prohibition on the procedure known as partial birth abortion symbolizes the fine line Democrats in the South must walk if they hope to win back the Senate in November.

Tenenbaum’s positions on these two issues are widely seen as necessary for her political viability in conservative-minded South Carolina, where being pegged a “national Democrat” is an almost certain recipe for defeat.

But in order to raise the $6 million to $8 million necessary for her to remain financially competitive, Tenenbaum must look to national Democratic groups to whom her positions on partial birth abortion and gay marriage are anathema.

While this political conundrum is most vividly represented in the Palmetto State, it could also play out in open-seat Senate races in Georgia, North Carolina and Louisiana —all of which are currently held by Democrats.

In all three states, President Bush won solid majorities in 2000 and Republicans won Senate seats in Georgia and North Carolina last cycle. Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) was pushed to a December runoff in her 2002 re-election bid but won 52 percent to 48 percent.

“If Democrats in the South don’t make themselves acceptable culturally and socially then no amount of money is going to get them elected,” said a Democratic strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Tenenbaum’s campaign appears well aware of this imperative.

“Democratic groups understand that she is sometimes going to take positions that are not popular among national Democrats, but they know she can’t hold onto this seat if she runs the standard Democratic playbook,” said Tenenbaum Communications Director Adam Kovacevich.

EMILY’s List, a political action committee that helps Democratic women who support abortion rights, seems to have swallowed any qualms they have about Tenenbaum’s position on the issue, offering her an endorsement and mailing to their members urging financial support for the South Carolina Democrat.

“We would not support a candidate who supports a late-term abortion ban without exceptions for the life and the health of the woman,” said EMILY’s List Communications Director Ramona Oliver.

Although EMILY’s List is supporting Tenenbaum, the group did not back Landrieu in 2002, nor is it helping Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) as she seeks a second term this November.

Landrieu and Lincoln were two of 17 Democratic Senators who voted for a ban on partial birth abortions when it came before the Senate last October. That bill lacked an exception for the life and health of the mother, a plank that Tenenbaum favors.

“Senators Landrieu and Lincoln did not support all of those exceptions and that is why their positions are not consistent with ours,” Oliver said.

It is not clear how Tenenbaum would have voted on the legislation that passed the Senate.

Even so, Republicans are clearly preparing to use Tenenbaum’s support from EMILY’s List against her this fall.

“This is clearly an organization that is pro-choice to the extreme when people in South Carolina look at them,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Communications Director Dan Allen.

“The fact that they don’t support a ban on partial birth abortion and that Tenenbaum has donated to them recently and is now taking their support has to make voters in South Carolina wonder what she would do if she was ever elected to the Senate,” added Allen.

On Sept. 3, 2003, Tenenbaum donated $200 to EMILY’s List, according to Political Moneyline.com, a campaign-finance monitoring Web site.

While Tenenbaum is essentially unopposed for her party’s nomination, South Carolina Republicans are playing host to a six-way primary that will culminate June 8.

Former Gov. David Beasley leads the field with Rep. Jim DeMint, former state Attorney General Charlie Condon and wealthy real estate developer Thomas Ravenel also considered serious candidates.

If no one receives 50 percent on June 8, the two top votegetters face off in a June 22 runoff.

Tenenbaum’s decision to embrace President Bush’s support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage was widely praised by Democratic strategists and political scientists but seems likely to cost her financial support from the gay community.

In the 2002 cycle, the Human Rights Campaign — the largest political organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered individuals in the country — gave more than $1.3 million to federal candidates through its political action committee; its roughly 500,000 members donated an additional $7 million to candidates.

One Democratic strategist familiar with the state’s politics, however, predicted that Tenenbaum’s positions on those two wedge issues “will not cost her any measurable amount of political money.”

“Donors have to understand, and most of them are smart enough to understand, that not everybody can walk into the U.S. Senate with the same positions,” added the strategist.

Several Democratic sources also noted that if national interest groups and the donor community need a reminder of the perils of being labeled a “national Democrat” in South Carolina they need only look as far as last cycle’s open seat Senate race in the state.

In that contest, then Rep. Lindsey Graham (R) repeatedly bashed former College of Charleston President Alex Sanders (D) on his opposition to a constitutional amendment banning flag burning and to the death penalty.

Although Sanders was arguably a conservative on more hot-button issues — he supported the Bush tax cuts and was a member of the National Rifle Association — Sanders was never able to focus the debate on more friendly ground.

“Issues go to values,” argued one knowledgeable Democrat. “Republicans attributed values to Alex Sanders that voters found out of the mainstream.”

The Tenenbaum campaign is clearly hoping that by taking the positions she has on these controversial issues, it will allow them to pivot to fight on more solid ground.

“She is determined to run on jobs, education, and health care,” said Kovacevich. “She thinks those are the issues that matter most to people in a state that has lost 70,000 jobs in three years. These other issues are not the foremost concerns in peoples’ minds.”