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DeMint Roars Out of Palmetto State’s GOP Senate Runoff

Senate Republicans’ chances in South Carolina’s open-seat race received a boost Tuesday when Rep. Jim DeMint soundly defeated former Gov. David Beasley in a runoff to claim the GOP nomination.

DeMint now moves to the general election where he will face state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum (D), a contest that Republicans see as one of their best pickup opportunities in the country.

“DeMint’s victory allows him to start moving forward in the general election with a full head of steam,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Communications Director Dan Allen.

NRSC Chairman George Allen (Va.) is scheduled to campaign with DeMint in the state next Wednesday.

Democrats downplayed DeMint’s win as not unexpected and rejected the idea that the three-term Congressman presents a more difficult opponent than Beasley would have.

“Even in the private counsels of the campaign we had an ongoing debate about who would be the preferred opponent,” said Tenenbaum media consultant Bill Carrick, adding that he regularly went back and forth himself on that question.

“We will take the fight to [DeMint],” he pledged.

In the days leading up to Tuesday’s runoff, however, Democrats privately acknowledged that Beasley would be a much easier target for Tenenbaum. The race with Beasley would likely have been framed as a referendum on his four years leading the state. Now, the race will be more issue-focused, rarely a good thing for a Democrat running in a Republican-leaning state.

When asked whether DeMint makes a tougher foe than Beasley, one Democratic consultant said “absolutely.”

“He is stronger than Lindsey Graham,” said the source, referring to the Republican Congressman who won the Palmetto State’s 2002 open-seat Senate race. “DeMint is more ideological and has more substance.”

Regardless of the outlook for the fall, DeMint’s victory margin was larger than most neutral observers expected.

He took 59 percent of the vote to Beasley’s 41 percent just 14 days after the former governor led the six-way primary field with 37 percent. DeMint took 26 percent in that race, narrowly edging out real estate developer Thomas Ravenel for a spot in the runoff.

In the primary, Beasley won 37 of the state’s 45 counties, and DeMint won just four. The runoff saw DeMint emerge victorious in 31 counties while Beasley won just 14.

DeMint owed his margin of victory in the runoff to a decisive showing in the state’s Lowcountry — an area where neither man had a political base. He took 76 percent in Charleston County, the anchor of the Lowcountry, thanks to the public endorsements of Ravenel and former state Attorney General Charlie Condon, a native of the Lowcountry who finished fourth in the Senate primary.

Republicans Wednesday sought to paint the victory as a fitting rebuke to doubters of DeMint’s ability to raise the millions of dollars necessary for a statewide campaign and attract widespread support given his low-key style.

Campaign manager Terry Sullivan described the Republican race, in which DeMint raised better than $3.5 million, as “the tortoise and the hare.”

“Jim DeMint is a consistent, steady guy,” said Sullivan. “He is not going to be accused of being a razzle-dazzle politician.”

Glen Bolger, who handled the survey research for DeMint, called the runoff victory “hugely significant.”

“There is no longer talk of Jim DeMint being able to win the Lowcountry or whether the party can unify,” added Bolger, who has also handled polling for victorious candidates in close-fought Senate primaries in Illinois and Pennsylvania this year.

For Democrats, the Republican runoff had little to do with DeMint, serving instead as a rejection of Beasley’s tenure as governor from 1994 to 1998.

“From the day David Beasley entered this race, it was going to be a referendum on David Beasley,” said Tenenbaum campaign manager Carol Butler.

DeMint spent significant time in the runoff raising questions about Beasley’s character with ads that accused the former governor of switching positions on whether to fly the Confederate flag over the state Capitol and on the state lottery. Carrick credited DeMint with a “clever” strategy.

“He brought up a lot of old controversies from Beasley’s past,” said Carrick, adding that DeMint outspent Beasley at a 3-1 clip in the two-week runoff.

Beasley attacked DeMint repeatedly for his free trade position, including his vote to give President Bush wider latitude when negotiating foreign trade agreements. Democrats — and even some Republicans, privately — believe that Beasley was a flawed messenger on trade since he had once been a free trader himself.

Tenenbaum will make the contrast between herself and DeMint on trade the centerpiece of the general election campaign.

Roughly 75,000 private sectors jobs have been lost in the Palmetto State in the last three years, according to the Tenenbaum campaign.

“Jobs are going to be a big part of this campaign,” said Butler. “Jobs are hemorrhaging in South Carolina.”

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