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Yet Again, Trade Flops as an Issue In the Palmetto State

Once again, the dreaded trade issue has resembled the month of March. It came in like a lion only to leave like a lamb.

For months, allies of former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley (R) promised that his polling showed South Carolina voters — even Republican voters in the normally conservative state — were upset at the loss of jobs, and they blamed free trade (especially China) for the state’s economic woes.

[IMGCAP(1)] While Beasley’s critics insisted that his position on trade had only recently morphed from supportive to a more restrictive view — an evolution the former governor denied when I spoke with him — there is no doubt where he stood in this contest.

He had the full backing of textile-industry heavyweight Roger Milliken, one of the loudest voices in the state for trade restrictions, and he made trade and jobs a cornerstone issue of his campaign.

If Beasley were lucky enough to face Rep. Jim DeMint in a runoff, one Beasley supporter insisted over lunch only a couple of weeks before the June 8 primary, the former governor would take the Congressman’s unabashedly free-trade record and rhetoric and beat him over the head with it.

Well, Beasley tried to do just that — and once again, the issue proved to be all bark and no bite.

In 1992, when many observers warned that the Palmetto State would be a good place for protectionist insurgent Pat Buchanan to take on then-President George H.W. Bush in the GOP primary, voters handed Bush a clear win. And during the last cycle, when Democrats promised that a deciding vote for free trade by Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) would send him to involuntary retirement, voters instead reelected him easily.

I realize, of course, that Beasley, like Buchanan and Chris Kouri, the Democrat who challenged Hayes in 2002, may have been the wrong messenger with the right message. In Beasley’s case, his own weaknesses, such as his perceived flip-flopping and his close association with the religious right, may simply have limited his effectiveness as a candidate. That’s exactly what Democratic Senate nominee Inez Tenenbaum, the state’s superintendent of Public Instruction, has been arguing.

But even if Beasley’s personal shortcomings explain his defeat, his loss demonstrates at the very least that voters who express frustration with free trade aren’t single-issue voters.

Remember, too, that DeMint was a perfect target for the former governor. The Congressman not only had a long record in support of free trade, but he also never backed away from that position. Instead, DeMint challenged Beasley’s contention that the state’s slow economy was caused by free trade, noted that an economic rebound was under way and warned that Beasely’s position on trade would start a trade war that would wreak havoc on the state’s economy.

Whatever you think about the merits of the two points of view, it is now clear that the political equation is not so simple in the state. Voters may say they are against free trade or complain about specific agreements, but they didn’t vote that way in the GOP runoff.

I have no doubt that there are parts of this country where critics of free trade are so numerous and so energized that they could carry the day in a race where trade was the defining difference between two otherwise similarly positioned candidates. But South Carolina may not be one of those places.

The GOP results have to cause at least a moment of pause over at Tenenbaum’s campaign. Is she now so sure that the trade issue is going to be as effective as some Democratic strategists have insisted it would be?

In fact, Tenenbaum’s position on the issue of trade is less than crystal-clear. While she has expressed concerns about job losses and about the trade agreements that have contributed to those losses, she has supported past trade agreements and knows how important foreign investment is to the state’s economy. Will she now simply replay Beasley’s message, hoping to pick off enough fair-trade Republicans to win?

Regardless of what Tenenbaum does, my guess is that national and state Democrats, already invested in the anti-NAFTA, anti-trade argument, will get their sledge hammers out and bash the Congressman for exporting the state’s jobs to Latin America and Asia.

So where does DeMint’s nomination leave the general election and Tenenbaum?

First, Tenenbaum must be counting her blessings that she didn’t draw businessman Thomas Ravenel as her opponent. Whatever his vulnerabilities and shortcomings, he would have beaten Tenenbaum with ease by bringing together Lowcountry (typically more moderate) Republicans with socially conservative Upstate voters. Without a record to target, Ravenel would have been a nightmare for Democrats and an impossible opponent for Tenenbaum.

Second, Palmetto State Republicans chose a Gerald Ford over a Bill Clinton. DeMint is rather bland and unexciting, but he’s principled, policy-oriented and relatively safe as a candidate. Beasley, on the other hand, is way too smooth. He’s the kind of guy you want to go drinking and carousing with, not the kind of guy you want dating your daughter.

Tenenbaum vs. DeMint looks like a close, spirited race. The Democrat has the charisma. The Republican has the partisan edge. And critics of free trade will once again have an opportunity to flex their muscles … or show they don’t have any.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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