After narrowly advancing to a runoff against former Gov. David Beasley (R) in South Carolina’s open Senate seat primary Tuesday, Rep. Jim DeMint (R) moved quickly to consolidate support in the key coastal battleground centered on Charleston.
The thrust of the Congressman’s two-week runoff campaign will be aimed at “making Lowcountry folks feel comfortable with Jim DeMint,” said campaign pollster Glen Bolger.
DeMint, a three-term Member from the Upstate, took a major step in that direction by securing the endorsement of real estate developer Thomas Ravenel (R) on Wednesday.
Ravenel came within 4,000 votes of knocking DeMint out of the runoff Tuesday, thanks in large part to his strength in the Lowcountry, which is dominated by Charleston.
DeMint campaign manager Terry Sullivan called the Ravenel endorsement a “big boost” and predicted that his candidate would carry Charleston on June 22.
Former state Attorney General Charlie Condon, who placed fourth in the Republican primary, also has a political base in the Lowcountry. He had not decided whether he will offer an endorsement at press time.
Some other potential powerbrokers appear content to sit on the sidelines.
Rep. Henry Brown (R), who holds the Lowcountry 1st district, is “going to stay out of this one,” according to a spokeswoman.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) and Rep. Joe Wilson (R) are also expected to take a pass on the endorsement game.
Third district Rep. Gresham Barrett (R) endorsed DeMint roughly two weeks before the primary, said a spokesman.
Though the developments immediately following the primary tilted in DeMint’s favor, the task before him is not insubstantial.
Beasley won 37 of the 46 counties in the state, while DeMint won just four.
Beasley’s campaign did not return numerous calls for comment Wednesday.
State Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum crushed former police officer Ben Frasier in the Senate Democratic primary and awaits the eventual Republican nominee.
Both DeMint and Beasley have significant room for improvement in the Lowcountry as neither performed well there Tuesday.
Beasley took 23 percent in the seven counties that make up the Lowcountry, while DeMint received just 17 percent.
Ravenel, whose father, Arthur, is a legendary political figure along the coast, took 40 percent of the Lowcountry vote. He used nearly $3 million in personal money to fund his race.
Condon took only 18 percent, but that was double the 9 percent he received statewide.
More than most states, Republican voters in South Carolina are divided by region, with those in the Upstate seen as social conservatives and those in the Lowcountry considered economic conservatives.
With Beasley, who is from Darlington County, and DeMint in the runoff, the Lowcountry has no obvious native son — leaving the territory wide open for the two men to fight over.
One Republican consultant who has done extensive work in the state but is not affiliated with either runoff candidate gave DeMint the upper hand in winning the Lowcountry.
The source noted that Beasley has never done well along the coast, dating back to his victory in the 1994 gubernatorial election.
In his 1998 re-election race against then-state Sen. Jim Hodges (D), Beasley lost the Lowcountry 60 percent to 40 percent, a showing that led to his 53 percent to 45 percent statewide defeat.
The reason for Beasley’s Lowcountry difficulties, according to the consultant, is that he is too closely identified with social conservatives for many Charleston Republicans.
“The coast is not enamored with the religious right,” said the source. “DeMint is a Chamber of Commerce Republican.”
Beasley’s strongest margin came in his base in the Pee Dee, an area that takes in much of the area from Columbia to the state’s northeastern coast.
His strongest showing came in his Darlington County base (81 percent), but the former governor also ran strongly in Florence (70 percent) and Marion (72 percent) counties.
DeMint had more difficulty in the Upstate, as he won Greenville convincingly but lost Anderson and Spartanburg counties, the other two major population pillars of the region.
Allies of the Congressman maintained that he would carry the Upstate over Beasley but acknowledged that it would not be by a huge margin.
Both sides expect runoff turnout in the Upstate to to be significantly higher than in the Pee Dee due to its strong Republican tilt.
Geography aside, there appear to be very few ideological differences between the two candidates.
The major point of contention is likely to center on the trade issue, specifically DeMint’s vote to give President Bush expanded ability to negotiate trade deals.
In the primary campaign, Beasley highlighted his work to create jobs in the state during his four years as governor.
That also appears to be the single largest peg on which he will hang his runoff effort, appearing Wednesday at the factory of a company that relocated to the state during Beasley’s four years in office.
In that appearance, Beasley said that DeMint and Ravenel “have been on the same side game plan with regard to unfair foreign trade.”
South Carolina’s textile industry has been hit hard by free-trade agreements, and DeMint faced a primary challenge in his 2002 re-election race from an opponent financed by textile kingpin Roger Milliken, an ardent protectionist.
DeMint’s campaign in turn will cast the runoff race as a choice between the politics of the past and the politics of the future. Despite that line of argument, DeMint, at 52, is more than five years older than Beasley.
“We’ve got one candidate that says the sky is falling and the other one saying the sky is the limit,” said Sullivan.