Democrats in South Carolina and Washington, D.C., are slowly coming to grips with the idea that Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) could retire next year rather than seek a seventh full term.
Joe Erwin, who took over as chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party earlier this month, said Tuesday that, without tipping his hand about his political plans, Hollings recently told him that it would be all right if the state party leader started recruiting candidates to run in case he didn’t.
“Go do your job,” Erwin said the 81-year-old Senator advised him.
Still, Democrats are optimistic that Hollings will feel enough competitive fire to run again. Republicans have targeted his seat — regardless of whether he seeks re-election.
“We’re operating under the assumption and the hope that Senator Hollings is going to run for re-election,” said Brad Woodhouse, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
But party leaders admit that it will be tougher to hold the seat if the incumbent isn’t on the ballot.
“If he doesn’t run, our task is far more challenging,” Erwin conceded.
Erwin said he will hold off on a serious recruiting effort until he has had an opportunity to talk with Hollings at greater length — in two or three weeks, perhaps.
Hollings spokesman Andy Davis did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. A former Hollings aide and campaign manager, South Carolina statehouse lobbyist Crawford Cook, also did not respond to telephone messages Tuesday.
Douglas Dent, another ex-Hollings aide who is a politically active lawyer in Greenville, S.C., said his old boss seems genuinely torn about what to do. “I think that the decision by the Senator is still day to day,” Dent said.
With Hollings’ plans up in the air, several names have been floated as possible Democratic candidates, though it’s unclear whether any of these individuals would seriously consider running. Woodhouse and Erwin insist there are strong contenders waiting in the wings.
“Regardless of what Senator Hollings does, we are committed to doing everything we can to stay competitive in South Carolina,” Woodhouse said.
The list of potential replacements begins with Inez Tenenbaum, the popular state superintendent of education. Tenenbaum is a former teacher and lawyer with a long record of good works. She was also the founder of a nonprofit agency that pushed to reform the state juvenile justice system.
Tenenbaum also has the ability to bring lots of money to the race. Her husband, Samuel Tenenbaum, is the president of a steel company and former finance director of the South Carolina Democratic Party. Both Tenenbaums have given generously to Democratic candidates across the state and nation. But she is thought to be far more interested in running for governor in 2006 or 2010 than making a Senate bid.
Also high on the Democrats’ wish list are two wealthy businesspeople: Darla Moore and Hayne Hipp.
Moore, a native of Lake City, S.C., is the executive vice president of Rainwater Inc., a private investment firm, and is known for her philanthropic work. She donated $25 million to the University of South Carolina Business School in the mid-1990s, and it is now named after her.
Politically, Moore leans Democratic, but not exclusively. While she has been a major donor to the state party, she contributed $2,000 to both the Democratic and Republican candidates for Senate in South Carolina last year (the Republican, then-Rep. Lindsey Graham, won). In recent years she has also contributed to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and liberal Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Hipp, the owner of a broadcasting holding company, is part of a venerable South Carolina family famous for its business holdings and charitable works. But Hipp’s own political preferences — if contributions to candidates for federal office are any indication — clearly lean Republican. In 1999, he gave $250 to the leading Republican in the 2004 Senate race, Rep. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).
Trav Robertson, a Democratic consultant in South Carolina, did not discount the possibility that either Moore or Hipp could run for Senate, but said their names come up whenever there is a major political opening, and so far neither has shown any inclination to run for office.
“Whenever you hear Darla Moore or you hear Hayne Hipp, you say, ‘There we go again,’” Robertson said.
If Tenenbaum, Hipp or Moore don’t run, the party could turn to former Rep. Robin Tallon (D-S.C.), who spent 10 years in the House and chose not to run again in 1992 after it appeared that his coastal district would lose significant territory to two others.
“I’ve heard he’s been interested in getting back in the game,” Robertson said.
Tallon, who is now a lobbyist in Washington, left office with a huge campaign surplus, and as of March 31 he still had $541,000 in the bank — a substantial sum that could be used for a Senate bid. He did not respond to a phone message Tuesday.
Other potential Democratic candidates, according to a range of sources, include Columbia Mayor Bob Coble, who comes from a Democratic stronghold; state Sen. Tommy Moore, who is attractive because he represents a conservative district; Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley Jr., who has held that job since 1975 and shows no desire to move on; former College of Charleston President Alex Sanders, the party’s Senate nominee in 2002, who has been out of the state teaching for the past few months; and state Sen. Nikki Setzler, a proven votegetter in a conservative area.
Erwin said he would not comment on the list. “I think it’s amateurish to float names in the media,” he said.
Erwin said he would be ecstatic if Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.) ran for Hollings’ seat some day, but acknowledged that the Congressman is unlikely to do so. Nevertheless, Erwin said that if Hollings tells him he is planning to retire, his first calls would be to Spratt and Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) for advice.
Clyburn spokeswoman Hope Derrick said that if the Congressman has a favorite candidate to replace Hollings, she is unaware of it.
Woodhouse said Democrats remain cautiously optimistic about their prospects in South Carolina even without Hollings on the ballot because of the GOP field, which includes DeMint and former state Attorney General Charlie Condon.
“The caliber of Republicans stepping up to run doesn’t give us any reasons to feel fearful. … There’s no Lindsey Graham in that field,” he said.
Dent, the former Hollings aide, predicted that the Senator would recruit, raise money and campaign for his successor if he does not seek re-election. “He doesn’t want the seat turned over to the Republicans,” Dent said.