Former Gov. David Beasley (R) remains the strong favorite to lead today’s South Carolina Republican Senate primary voting, but the possibility has emerged that real estate developer Thomas Ravenel (R) could overtake Rep. Jim DeMint (R) for second place, according to conversations with strategists and aides involved in the race.
“We are very, very close,” said Ravenel spokesman Mike Green. “Even DeMint’s people have agreed that we are nipping at his heels.”
Not so, said DeMint campaign manager Terry Sullivan, who predicted his candidate would “hit 25 [percent] in today’s voting” and come in a solid second.
All told, six Republicans are competing for the nomination — though only Beasley, Ravenel, DeMint and former state Attorney General Charlie Condon have run competitive campaigns.
If none of the candidates receives 50 percent of the vote — as is expected given the size of the field — the two top votegetters advance to a June 22 runoff.
State Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum will be opposed by Ben Frasier in the Democratic primary today, although she is expected to cruise to the nomination.
The attention and energy in the open-seat contest for now, however, is among Republicans as they head to the polls in what is seen as one of the best pickup opportunities in the country for GOPers.
All sides acknowledge that Beasley is a lock for a runoff spot though they differ as to what percentage he must receive in order to enter the two-week runoff with momentum.
Richard Quinn, Beasley’s lead consultant, has long maintained that his candidate is not only the strongest on the first ballot but is also the Republican voters’ leading second choice.
Sullivan painted Beasley as a candidate that has been slowly losing support since he entered the race in February.
“We are gaining and Beasley is flat like he has always been,” Sullivan said. Beasley’s campaign “has said he is at 45 percent. He will be somewhere in the upper 30s.”
Beasley detractors note that based on recent history, the primary frontrunner must garner at least 40 percent to ensure victory in the runoff.
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.
In the 2002 gubernatorial race, former Rep. Mark 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.
The race for second place in this year’s race still appears DeMint’s to lose, but heavy personal spending by Ravenel coupled with his well-known political name have helped him make a contest of it.
DeMint has been running for the Senate since the start of the cycle, initially entering the race as its frontrunner.
Unlike now-Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in 2002, however, DeMint was unable to keep other major Republican players out of the primary.
Unbowed by the criticism, the three-term Congressman from the Upstate has stayed the course, using his financial advantage to go on television first and boost himself into second place.
DeMint punctuated his primary campaign Monday with a fly-around to each of the state’s eight media markets.
Ravenel, meanwhile, entered the race as a political unknown though his last name was familiar in state political circles due to his father, Arthur.
Arthur Ravenel bookended a long career in the state House and Senate with three terms representing the Charleston-based 1st district in Congress from 1988 to 1994. He vacated the seat that year to run unsuccessfully for governor.
Elected back to the state Senate in 1996, Arthur Ravenel will conclude his political career at the end of 2004.
Despite his famous last name, Thomas Ravenel has cast himself as an outsider to the political process and a fresh face in his extensive media campaign.
“Once people meet [Thomas] on television or in person they like what he has to say,” said Green. “They like him more than they do DeMint.”
Ravenel, who had loaned his campaign nearly $3 million as of press time, is running six separate television ads across the state.
In one, the ad’s narrator calls Ravenel “the only candidate who’s not a career politician, a lawyer or both.”
The spot also touts him as “the only Republican candidate that can beat Inez Tenenbaum.”
While Ravenel is slightly outspending DeMint on television in the final week, strategists for the Congressman note that by running so many different ads Ravenel runs the risk of confusing the message he is trying to send to voters.
Another complication for Ravenel is the presence of Condon, who shares his geographic base in Charleston and the Low Country.
While Condon is expected to finish fourth, he does have considerable strength in the Charleston area from his two successful runs for state attorney general and his losing gubernatorial effort in 2002.
“We are number one in the Charleston market,” maintained Condon spokeswoman Christy Fargnoli.
Running low on money, Condon has staked the entirety of his campaign on security issues and is currently running an ad that features an endorsement from Charleston Sheriff Rueben Greenberg.
Hoping to consolidate the Low Country vote, Ravenel is touting himself as the only candidate from the area who has a chance to beat Tenenbaum and represent the state in the Senate.
Graham and DeMint both hail from the Upstate, while Beasley calls the Pee Dee, which encompasses the east-central part of the state, home.
“If [voters] want Low Country representation, they need to vote for someone who can win,” Green said.