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Republican Race Tightens

S.C. Favorite Faces Surprisingly Tough Primary

The coronation of Rep. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) as the Republican nominee against Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) that many national Republicans expected has not materialized.

Recent financial reports show that while the three-term Congressman has raked in the most money in the race, two other Republicans — Charleston developer Thomas Ravenel and former state Attorney General Charlie Condon — are also raising large sums, significantly increasing the likelihood of a competitive GOP primary.

DeMint raised roughly $600,000 between April 1 and June 30, bringing his year-to-date total for the race to $1 million. Ravenel surprised many observers by giving nearly $1 million to his campaign , while Condon raised a solid $450,000 during the last three months.

Several GOP sources said that DeMint’s showing — coupled with the financial heavy hitters he has signed on to his campaign — is just enough to keep him at the head of the pack but certainly not enough to put the race away, as many had hoped he would do by this point.

“The perception was that [DeMint] was going to be the establishment’s candidate,” said Tom Perdue, a consultant for Ravenel’s campaign.

Despite seeming to have the tacit support of the White House and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, DeMint maintained that he always expected a serious primary challenge given the strongly Republican nature of the state.

“We always knew there would be a number of folks to jump in,” he said.

The South Carolina Senate race is seen as one of the top takeover opportunities for Republicans regardless of whether Hollings ultimately seeks an eighth term.

“Republicans are very pleased with the caliber of candidates we have in the race,” said NRSC Communications Director Dan Allen.

Hollings appears to be leaning against making the race, and Democrats are working hard to convince state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum (D) to run. Tenenbaum initially was more interested in challenging Gov. Mark Sanford (R) in 2006, but given Sanford’s sky-high approval ratings may be reconsidering 2004, Democratic sources said.

Due to the intense media focus on Hollings’ future, the Republican primary race has flown under the radar, with most observers expecting DeMint to run away with the nomination.

First elected to the Up Country 4th district in 1998, DeMint not been seriously challenged since and has spent more than a year ramping up for a Senate race.

DeMint has openly acknowledged that he is attempting to employ the financial and organizational model of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R), who was able to clear the primary field and then win a relatively humdrum open-seat general election with 54 percent in 2002.

Graham was aided in his efforts to keep other Republicans out by both the White House and the NRSC, both of whom made it clear that he was their preferred candidate. DeMint seemed to be benefitting from that same treatment earlier in the year but denies that he ever sought to cultivate that image.

“I never saw myself as the pick of the White House or the NRSC,” he said. “It is too early for them to show their hand.”

DeMint went on to argue that the lack of an official endorsement from the White House actually has helped his campaign.

“If I was seen too early as the White House pick that might have hurt me in South Carolina,” he said.

DeMint has secured key financial figures affiliated with the campaigns of Graham and Sanford, who won the state’s top office in 2002 after serving in the House from 1995 to 2001. DeMint has also begun accepting political action committee dollars.

“I feel real good about where we are,” said DeMint. “As people look at where the money is coming from, it is going to be spread across the state.”

DeMint added that fundraising for the race is a “marathon,” adding: “I know how to pace myself.” At this point last cycle, Graham had raised and banked nearly $1.7 million.

Neither Condon nor Ravenel appear to be daunted by the Congressman’s take thus far.

“I feel like there is a lot of support for me and my campaign across South Carolina,” said Condon about his second-quarter total, which his campaign claims is the most he has ever raised in three months.

Condon is coming off an unsuccessful run for governor in 2002 where he finished third in the Republican primary. Prior to that race, Condon had served eight years as the state’s top cop, the first Republican elected to that post since Reconstruction.

Condon said his statewide experience coupled with his stronger than expected fundraising makes him a major factor in the primary.

“The skeptics needed to see my monetary support,” he said. “It’s there and it will continue to be there.”

The only poll conducted so far in the race was done in April by Condon and showed him with a 27 percent to 19 percent edge over DeMint. Ravenel and Myrtle Beach Mayor Mark McBride, who is not considered a serious factor in the race, both received 4 percent.

Ravenel’s willingness to spend heavily from his own pocket as well as his famous last name make him a wild card in the primary contest. Ravenel loaned his campaign $950,000 and will show slightly more than $1 million raised for the period. His generosity triggers the so-called “millionaire’s amendment” in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act that raises campaign contribution limits for candidates running against self-funders.

DeMint, Condon and McBride can now accept $6,000 contributions from individuals, and if Ravenel crests $1.1 million in personal giving that limit will jump to $12,000.

The wealthy Charleston developer is the youngest son of former Rep. Arthur Ravenel Jr. (R), who held the Charleston-based 1st district from 1986 to 1994. That year he ran unsuccessfully for governor, and now serves in the state Senate.

“The difference with him is he started out 15 years ago and built a business from scratch,” said Perdue. “He has an entirely different perspective than anyone else in the race.”

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