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Minority Vote a Key Factor in Two S.C. Races

Unexpectedly strong Democratic fundraising and likely record African-American turnout for presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has Reps. Henry Brown (R) and Joe Wilson (R) protecting their political careers along coastal South Carolina a week out from Election Day.

“We’re seeing a lot of people active for the presidential race [and] the minority vote is a little stronger,” than previous years, Wilson spokesman Preston Grisham said Monday. “It’s going to be slightly closer” than previous election cycles.

How much closer remains to be seen. But recent polling and political insiders around the state suggests that self-funding Food Lion heiress Linda Ketner is within striking distance of Brown, who has not faced a Democratic opponent since 2000 and whose district elected George Bush twice with at least 59 percent of the vote.

In a new ballot test done for a Charleston television station, Brown led Ketner 50 percent to 45 percent. The automated SurveyUSA poll, which interviewed 600 likely voters Oct. 25-26, had a 4.1-point margin of error. Among the coastal district’s 21 percent black population, Ketner led the incumbent 7-1, while Brown was ahead with white voters 3-2.

Ketner and Brown’s campaigns did not respond to interview requests from Roll Call, but local party officials on both sides agree that Brown will be more vulnerable than Wilson on Nov. 4.

Channeling John Berendt’s descriptions in the novel “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” GOP pollster Whit Ayers said South Carolinian political culture — and Ketner’s chances — comes down to three questions.

“In Greenville, they ask you, ‘Where do you go to church?’”Ayers said. “In Columbia, they ask you, ‘What do you do for a living?’”

“And in Charleston, they ask you, ‘What will you have to drink?’” Ayers continued. “Ketner can be competitive in a ‘What will you have to drink?’ district.”

Ayers, who conducts Wilson’s polls, said that although the vote likely will be close in Brown’s Charleston-based district, Republicans will fare much better in Wilson’s district, a more conservative tract that runs from Hilton Head Island to Columbia.

A main reason Ketner will outperform Wilson’s opponent, Iraq War veteran Rob Miller, Ayers said, is not only a tough environment for GOPers, but her ability to self-finance her campaign in the post-Millionaire’s Amendment era.

Last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a six-year-old law that allowed candidates — mostly incumbents — to exceed certain individual contribution limits when they faced a wealthy challenger.

Miller raised about $530,000 for his campaign through Oct. 15, while Wilson brought in nearly $1 million.

Through Oct. 15, Ketner raised $1.7 million — giving her campaign about $440,000 — while Brown raised $890,000.

Charleston County Republican Chairwoman Lin Bennett predicted that Obama will not do well in the district and doubted that local Democrats — voters she described as ”fairly conservative” — will pull never pull the lever for the openly gay Ketner.

“That just isn’t going to sell here,” Bennett said. “There is more than usual Democrat support, but I don’t believe that the ideals that she is interested in pursuing will interest the people of the 1st district.”

“What has pushed a lot of Democratic support here is Barack Obama, but I don’t necessarily think that that is going to carry down through the ticket,” she added.

But Jay Parmley, executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said voters are paying little attention to lifestyle issues these days and disputed Bennett’s characterization of Ketner, calling her a “common-sense businesswoman. “The economic issues are far out-trumping the social issues — there’s not an ad up that says, ‘Don’t elect this lesbian,’” Parmley said.

He declined to provide poll results to Roll Call but said Miller is “steadily moving up” in Wilson’s district, where more than a quarter of residents are black.

Parmley also said House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the highest ranking black lawmaker in Congress, will campaign for Miller next week.

South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson said Wilson and especially Brown should go negative from now until Election Day.

Still, Dawson said Brown should avoid “the politics of personal destruction” but added “as long as they’re true, on the record and factual, then it’s fair to give that to the voters. The ones who lose are the ones who didn’t draw contrasts.”

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