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As Expected, Fritz Takes a Pass

Sen. Fritz Hollings’ decision not to seek another term next year wasn’t a big surprise. But it is noteworthy, since he is the fourth-ranking Democrat in the Senate and the ranking member on the powerful Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

[IMGCAP(1)] Just last year, South Carolina’s two Senators, Hollings and Strom Thurmond (R), together accounted for 84 years of service in the chamber. But with Hollings’ exit when his term ends next year (and Thurmond’s retirement last year), South Carolina will have two freshman Senators — a dramatic drop in seniority in an institution where longevity still matters.

Add in the fact that former House Armed Services Chairman Floyd Spence (R-S.C.) died in 2001, in the middle of his 17th term, and it is clear that the Palmetto State has taken a hit when it comes to influence on Capitol Hill.

Hollings has retained his Senate seat even as his home state has been moving into the Republican column. Five years ago, when he last won re-election, he beat Rep. Bob Inglis (R), a Greenville-area conservative who refused to take PAC money and ran an under-funded race. Inglis spent $2.1 million in that contest to Hollings’ $4.9 million. The Democrat won 53 percent to 46 percent.

In 1992, Hollings beat former Rep. Tommy Hartnett 50 percent to 47 percent, in part by intimidating potential Hartnett contributors. The Senator spent $3.6 million while Hartnett, who represented Charleston for three terms but left to make an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor, couldn’t even reach the $900,000 mark.

Without those financial advantages, Hollings could have lost either one of those races.

Hollings had a history of voting a generally Democratic line every year except when he was up for re-election. That year, he would move noticeably right. In 1997, for example, his AFL-CIO score was 83 percent. The next year, when he was running for another term, it dropped to 29 percent. The year after he was re-elected, in 1999, Hollings’ AFL-CIO rating jumped back up to 100 percent.

The same pattern was evident in 1991-93, the previous time Hollings ran for re-election. In general, however, Hollings stood with his Northern Democratic colleagues, making him very different from old-line Southern conservatives, like ex-Sens. James Eastland (D-Miss.), Richard Russell (D-Ga.) and John Sparkmen (Ala.), with whom he served.

Known for sometimes saying the impolitic, Hollings once referred to then-Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) as “the Senator from B’nai B’rith” and to African diplomats as “cannibals.” He told workers at one plant that they “should draw a mushroom cloud, and put under it: ‘Made in America by lazy and illiterate Americans and tested in Japan.’”

Hollings’ departure leaves the Democrats in a bind. Although he might not have been able to hold his seat, Hollings at least had the advantages of incumbency. Now, the Democratic nominee won’t even have that.

South Carolina has not voted for another Democrat in a statewide federal election since Southerner Jimmy Carter in 1976, and it is unclear whether another Democrat — any Democrat — can hold the Senator’s seat.

With George W. Bush heading the GOP ticket next year, and someone like Massachusetts liberal John Kerry or even Vermont’s Howard Dean possibly running as the Democratic nominee for president, any Democratic Senate nominee in South Carolina could be swept to defeat in a Republican tidal wave.

State Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum is mentioned as a potential Democratic hopeful, and she might well be the strongest candidate her party can find. Elected statewide twice, she would be in mid-term in 2004 and able to take a “free” shot at the Senate without having to give up her state office. She ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 1994, failing even to win her party’s nomination.

Tenenbaum is a feisty, energetic speaker with a likable personality and style. But she is a Democrat, and the state GOP would no doubt try to tag her as a liberal.

The GOP race starts with three serious contenders, but the field could grow with Hollings’ announcement. Rep. Jim DeMint, former state Attorney General Charlie Condon and businessman Thomas Ravenel, son of a former Congressman from Charleston, have been running for months.

A fractious GOP primary could give the eventual Democratic nominee an opening, but that opening could close as soon as the Republicans pick a nominee.

Some Democrats believe Tenenbaum or another Democrat without a lot of partisan baggage might have a better chance to win next year than Hollings would have. Maybe they are right. But no matter who is carrying the Democrats’ banner, the Palmetto State is going to be an uphill climb for the Democratic nominee in the 2004 Senate race. The seat is ripe for a Republican takeover.

Rothenberg Political Report

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