A group of key South Carolina Democratic political operatives who have controlled the party apparatus for much of the past decade are openly questioning their national party’s strategy in the Senate race, arguing that state Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum is too liberal to carry the day in the general election.
Former state Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian said last week that he believes Columbia Mayor Bob Coble (D) and not Tenenbaum would be the stronger general election candidate; in the immediate aftermath of Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) retirement announcement earlier this month, the DSCC made clear they believed Tenenbaum represented their best chance to win.
Both Tenenbaum and Coble officially entered the race last week in nearly concurrent announcements.
Former Gov. Jim Hodges (D-S.C.) chief of staff Kevin Geddings placed himself, Coble, Harpootlian and Hodges on the moderate to conservative end of the party spectrum and Tenenbaum, her husband Sam, a former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, and the DSCC on the liberal wing.
“Governor Hodges, Dick Harpootlian and myself are the kind of people who would have supported [a presidential campaign by former Nebraska Sen.] Bob Kerrey,” explained Geddings. “The Tenenbaums are [Massachusetts Sen.] John Kerry people.”
Geddings added that in his view, the Tenenbaums’ close ties to the national party make them too beholden to a message that is likely more liberal than most Palmetto State voters.
“If the DSCC tells [Tenenbaum] to jump she is going to say, ‘How high?’” Geddings charged.
Both Tenenbaum and Coble deny that they are paying attention to the choosing of sides among party operatives, but there appears to be a fair amount of tension about their mutual decisions to enter the race.
“Two weeks ago [Coble] said he would not run if I ran and then he decided to run,” noted Tenenbaum. She added that she believed in the end, Coble would decide against officially joining the race.
“When it comes right down to it, the strongest candidate will file,” she said. The filing period in South Carolina is March 2004, with the primary slated for June.
Coble said that he “couldn’t imagine” a scenario in which he would not run for the Senate but largely sought to avoid taking any shots at Tenenbaum or the DSCC.
“For 13 years I have not gotten into any of that and don’t plan on getting into it,” he said.
Coble did point out, however, that the poll released last week by the DSCC was conducted by the pollster Tenenbaum has used in her past statewide races.
In the survey, which was conducted by Harrison Hickman, Tenenbaum held a 12-point lead over former state Attorney General Charlie Condon (R), a 15-point bulge over Rep. Jim DeMint, and a 20-point edge over Charleston developer Thomas Ravenel (R). Myrtle Beach Mayor Mark McBride is also in the race on the Republican side but was not tested.
Coble acknowledged that national Democrats had initially expressed their preference for Tenenbaum but asked the DSCC to “give me a fair shot.”
And it appears that, rhetorically at least, the committee is heeding Coble’s plea.
DSCC Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.) as well as other top committee officials reached out to Coble last week; Communications Director Mike Siegel extended an olive branch of his own, saying: “We have two very strong Democrats who have entered this race and together will only reinforce the strength of the Democratic message.”
The state party was similarly conciliatory.
“Bob Coble and Inez Tenenbaum are proven votegetters, and both of them would match up well against any of the Republicans who have announced,” said state party Executive Director Nu Wexler.
Even so, there is clearly a major disagreement about the direction of the party, which dates back to the losing campaigns of 2002 Senate nominee Alex Sanders (D), as well as Tenenbaum’s relationship with Hodges during his four years as the state’s top elected official.
“We have very different views of what the party should be doing,” said Geddings. “[Sam Tenenbaum] believes the national, very-hard-to-the-left-of-center message will work in South Carolina.”
Harpootlian added that his backing of Coble is based on his practical belief that the Mayor would be the stronger Senate candidate in the general election and not on a personal preference. In fact, he said he had long supported Tenenbaum’s campaigns and would back her in a 2006 gubernatorial race, a contest for which Harpootlian believes she is better suited.
“Our swing voters are much more conservative than many Democrats nationally and locally give them credit for being,” Harpootlian said. “Coble has gotten strong support from independent, white, swing voters.”
Much of this criticism has lingered since Sanders’ 2002 campaign against then-Rep. Lindsey Graham (R) for the seat vacated by Sen. Strom Thurmond (R).
In that race, Sanders was unable to capture the 35 percent to 40 percent of the white vote deemed necessary for a Democrat to have any chance of winning statewide in South Carolina; Graham won a relatively easy 54 percent to 44 percent victory.
Geddings blamed the inability to appeal to generally conservative white voters not on Sanders but rather on the national message allegedly being pushed on him.
“Alex Sanders was ill-served by buying into the DSCC formula,” he said.
Another issue is the alleged lack of support Tenenbaum provided Hodges, who was elected largely on an education platform in 1998.
“Governor Hodges did a lot of innovative things for education, and Inez didn’t support those things as fully as we had thought,” Geddings said.
Others note that Tenenbaum didn’t participate in the 2002 coordinated campaign, choosing to go her own way, which rankled some party operatives.
For his part, Hodges said that he and Tenenbaum “had a professional relationship that I considered fine,” but added: “Inez was helpful to us on a number of education issues.” Hodges said he had no plans to endorse either candidate.
Allies of both Tenenbaum and Coble do agree that the current tension is largely an insider’s game that the vast majority of voters will never know — or care — about.
“All these inside baseball people ever want to talk about is coming up with some insidious personal motive for everything that happens politically,” said Harpootlian. “Get off your ass, go register someone, go raise some money.”