Primary, Runoff

Quick S.C. Turnaround Affects Senate Strategy

Posted May 17, 2004 at 6:05pm

With just 21 days remaining in the six-way Republican primary for South Carolina’s open Senate seat, the four major candidates have already begun to strategize for the expected runoff that will follow just two weeks later.

“It’s two weeks,” said Terry Sullivan, campaign manager for Rep. Jim DeMint (R). “We have got to plan that we are going to be in the runoff and prepare for it.”

DeMint along with businessman Thomas Ravenel and former State Attorney General Charlie Condon are all fighting for a spot in the June 22 GOP runoff. Former Gov. David Beasley (R) is widely acknowledged as the frontrunner in the primary and a near-lock for the runoff.

The Republican nominee will face state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum (D) in the fall.

While many Southern states retain runoffs when no candidate receives 50 percent in the primary, only in South Carolina does the second race follow so closely on the first, necessitating a two-front strategy.

The tactics that the four GOP candidates are using range from subtle outreach about shared messages and goals to more blatant recruiting pitches to woo the eventual losing candidates

and their supporters.

“Charlie is putting his issues out there for every voter,” said Condon spokeswoman Christie Fargnoli.

Condon has also drawn contrasts between himself and DeMint on trade in his paid advertising, though that is more likely a primary strategy than one aimed at the runoff.

To this point, Ravenel has been the most aggressive in courting his rivals.

“We are doing everything we can for the other candidates within reason,” said Ravenel spokesman Mike Green.

He said that Ravenel has offered two of his Republican opponents rides on a campaign plane and that they are “constantly talking back and forth.”

Green noted that in polling done for the campaign “our second-choice numbers are much stronger than our first choice.”

Ravenel has loaned his campaign roughly $2 million so far in the race and is heavily outspending his rivals on television.

That spending coupled with the “outsider” image Ravenel has cultivated (evoking memories of the successful 2002 campaign of Republican Gov. Mark Sanford) has boosted him upward in the polls, according to officials in several of the campaigns.

In polling done for Beasley by Richard Quinn earlier this month, the former governor held a 40 percent to 18 percent edge over DeMint.

Ravenel took 11 percent — more than double the 5 percent he received in a similar tracking survey conducted in mid-April. Condon took 9 percent.

In hypothetical runoffs, Beasley led DeMint 55 percent to 27 percent and Ravenel 57 percent to 25 percent.

The latest Quinn survey was in the field on May 11 testing 467 likely voters with a 4.7 percent margin of error.

“Regardless of who the runoff opponent is, Governor Beasley is winning all of those [matchups],” said Quinn. “Not only is he the leading first choice, he is the leading second choice.”

The other three contenders are quick to dispute that logic, arguing that when the race comes down to a one-on-one between Beasley and one of them it will tighten significantly.

They note that Beasley carries a huge name identification edge from his four years as governor but insist that if voters do not choose him in the primary he is unlikely to pick up significant runoff votes.

“We are in a very safe and strong second place,” said Sullivan. “Beasley has never moved an inch.”

Green argued that in recent South Carolina elections, if the leader on the first ballot doesn’t receive 40 percent, he or she typically is defeated in the runoff.

“If they get 35 percent everyone gangs up on the frontrunner and kills him,” Green said.

The Palmetto State has held four competitive Republican primaries since 1998 — three for vacant House seats and the fourth for the gubernatorial nomination last cycle.

Twice, a candidate received better than 40 percent in the primary: Henry Brown in the 1st district in 2000 (44 percent) and Gresham Barrett in the 3rd district in 2002 (43 percent).

Brown won the runoff with 55 percent; Barrett received 65 percent.

The other two contests provided more mixed results.

In 1998, DeMint trailed then-state Sen. Mike Fair 32 percent to 23 percent in the primary only to win 53 percent to 47 percent in the runoff 14 days later.

Pointing to that race, Sullivan said that DeMint is pursuing a similar strategy this time.

“Runoffs in South Carolina are about two things: money and momentum,” said Sullivan. “We are going to have both.”

In the 2002 gubernatorial race, Sanford held a narrow 39 percent to 38 percent lead over then Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler in the primary but was able to consolidate establishment support and win a wider 60 percent to 40 percent margin in the runoff.

Several knowledgeable observers of the state’s politics said that the geographic bases of the two runoff candidates are more likely to predict the eventual winner than their initial primary showings.

Perhaps more than any other small state, South Carolina is divided geographically, with residents defining themselves politically by the area they call home.

The state is split into four distinct regions: the coastal Low Country, dominated by the city of Charleston; the Midlands, which includes the state capital of Columbia; the Pee Dee in the northeast, and the Up State that centers around Greenville and Spartanburg.

Both Condon and Ravenel are from the Low Country; Beasley is from the Pee Dee and DeMint is from the Up State.

A race between either Condon or Ravenel and Beasley would likely be a fight to see who could best appeal to the Up State voters, the most conservative in the state.

Beasley could struggle under that scenario given his support for removing the Confederate flag over the state Capitol, a major factor in his 1998 defeat at the hands of former Gov. Jim Hodges (D).

A DeMint versus Beasley runoff would likely favor the former governor as establishment Charleston Republicans would be unlikely to support an Up State nominee given the fact that freshman Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) also hails from that area.