Line Forms as Barrett Looks Upward in 2010

Posted August 8, 2008 at 3:49pm

Rep. Gresham Barrett’s (R-S.C.) likely play for the Palmetto State governor’s mansion next cycle already is generating a lengthy list of possible replacements for the third-term lawmaker.

Barrett isn’t saying for sure whether he’s running in 2010, but his political kabuki dance undoubtedly is in full churn.

“He’s focused on his re-election in November and any future plans he’ll consider after that,” Barrett spokeswoman Colleen Mangone told Roll Call last week. “He certainly has a love for the state of South Carolina, but at this point he’s focused on November.”

But should Barrett attempt to succeed outgoing Gov. Mark Sanford (R) and retire from the House in two years, a legendary name around South Carolina and in Washington, D.C., is expected to surge to the front of the line: Strom Thurmond Jr.

Thurmond, a lawyer in the region and son of the late Senator, undoubtedly would have universal name recognition with conservative voters and is widely known to have expressed interest in Barrett’s seat in the past. The late statesman’s son, a former federal prosecutor, did not return a message left at his Aiken, S.C., law firm.

Behind Thurmond, state Reps. Rex Rice and Michael Thompson also are considered possible Republican primary frontrunners in the district, which was previously represented by now-Sen. Lindsey Graham (R). Rice, a wealthy local businessman, also could devote significant resources to his campaign and has the requisite ties with the local business community.

“Rex Rice and Michael Thompson will be pretty formidable,” said Rick Quinn, a South Carolina political consultant who has worked with Graham and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in the state. “And word on the street is that if [Rice] turns into a serious candidate, he’ll have the personal resources to put into it.”

Rice’s ability to self-finance, Quinn said, would be crucial in any open-seat matchup in the district, a heavily conservative swath straddling the Georgia state line and taking in parts of roughly a dozen counties and at least three media markets.

Quinn set a baseline budget for any competitive primary candidate at $600,000, a deceptively hefty sum for many state legislators — particularly from the state House — who are only familiar with raising money under South Carolina’s liberal campaign finance laws.

“From an in-state perspective, it’s seen as an expensive seat to run for because if you’re going to be competitive on network television, you’ve got to buy a lot of different markets,” he said. “If you get away from the self-funding aspect, House Members are going to have somewhat of a more difficult road to hoe.”

He added: “Once it’s out there that they’re giving up their House seat, local corporate givers start to hedge their bets. State Senators can hold onto their seats win, lose or draw, so they have an advantage because they can still go to [the state Capitol] crowd and get contributions.”

State Sen. Greg Ryberg, who sank millions of dollars of his own money on losing a state treasurer’s race two years ago, also is considered a 2010 GOP ballot possibility in Barrett’s district. State Sen. Tom Alexander (R) is rumored to covet higher office as well.

And although the district has been ruby red for more than a decade, Democrats, too, like their chances in flipping the seat should Barrett run for governor next cycle. Democrat Jane Dyer, a former Air Force pilot, will be on the ballot against the incumbent this November, but she is not expected to challenge him seriously.

Still, Democrats believe that could all change if Barrett retires and the right candidate comes along, according to South Carolina Democratic Party Chairwoman Carol Fowler. After all, before Graham was elected in 1994 the district was represented by Rep. Butler Derrick (D) for 20 years.

“If that seat is open, we’d have a pretty good shot at it,” Fowler said. “It used to be a Democratic district and I think it can be again.”

Nationally, Democrats have celebrated recent special election victories for open Congressional seats in Louisiana and Mississippi — leading to a running narrative that the party is poised to experience a comeback in some areas of the South.

Recent election results, however, suggest the difficulties Democrats could have in flipping the seat. In 2004, President Bush won two-thirds of the vote in the district, which is heavily rural, poor and includes a military population approaching 15 percent. Still, Fowler claims the tide is turning and said Dyer would again be up to task next cycle. If not, Democrats also are grooming state Rep. Paul Agnew, whom Fowler called “very impressive.”

“That district is not as Republican as it used to be,” Fowler said. “The demographics of the district have changed quite a bit … it’s a Republican district, but it’s not as Republican as it was.”

But Quinn disputes that Barrett’s district has changed much in recent cycles. Unlike other areas of the South where Democrats are hoping northern transplants are turning states like North Carolina, Virginia — and even pockets of South Carolina — from red to blue, the GOP consultant said Barrett’s district “is becoming more of the same.”

“That is only happening in the coastal regions” of South Carolina, Quinn said. “The closer you get to the ocean, the more moderate you become in your sensibilities.”