After holding two Republican Congressmen under the 55 percent mark in the 2008 elections, South Carolina Democrats are hoping that the national party will take a closer look at Congressional opportunities in the Palmetto State during the 2010 cycle.
“Clearly, I think we surprised a lot of people by how well our nominees did— in the 1st and 2nd districts in 2008, said Jay Parmley, executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party.
In the Myrtle Beach and Charleston-based 1st district, Food Lion grocery chain heiress Linda Ketner’s (D) largely self-funded bid gave five-term Rep. Henry Brown (R) the lowest winning percentage of his Congressional career.
In a district that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won with 57 percent at the presidential level, Brown’s 52 percent victory has since spawned talk among some concerned Republicans of fielding a primary challenger to replace the Congressman. Carroll Campbell III (R), the son and namesake of the state’s former governor, is openly considering taking on Brown.
Meanwhile, in the central and southern 2nd district, Iraq War veteran Rob Miller came out of nowhere to take 46 percent of the vote against four-term Rep. Joe Wilson (R), who had never before faced a serious challenge.
While noting that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did throw money into the 1st district race late in the cycle, Parmley said that in the 2nd “they did not play at all and we ended up doing much better in the 2nd than I think anybody in Washington thought we would do.—
And in light of Ketner’s and Miller’s performances at the ballot box, “both of those districts are very much in play— in 2010, he said.
Republicans, however, aren’t hitting the panic button in South Carolina. Party insiders are more inclined to attribute Ketner’s and Miller’s performances to a tough political environment and a presidential race that brought out a large number of Democratically inclined African-American voters. The black population is 21 percent in the 1st district and 26 percent in the 2nd.
“At the end of the day, this a red state with a political environment that will be nowhere near as challenging as the one our party faced in 2008,— National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Paul Lindsay said on Monday.
It remains to be seen whether the same cast of characters will be around next year to try to build on Democratic gains in the 1st and 2nd districts.
“I’m not ruling anything out,— Ketner said last week. “I gave myself permission not to really consider it until the summer when we have a better idea what the environment will look like.
But Ketner also offered three reasons she might be inclined to pass on a 2010 Congressional bid. The first is simply the cost of running another campaign. Between contributions and loans, Ketner spent more than $1 million of her own money taking on Brown in 2008. The DCCC kicked in around $73,000 in independent expenditures to boost Ketner in the district, a total that ranked near the bottom of the races where the DCCC’s IE arm played.
“The economy has hit me as well,— Ketner said. “I put a lot of money into the last one that I won’t be able to put in to another bid.—
Ketner also said that last year she relied heavily on African-American turnout and said she’s unsure whether she’d be able to achieve similar numbers among black voters without Obama on the ballot. Finally, she said, there’s the fact that the 2010 redistricting process, likely to be controlled by Republicans, will reshape the district in 2012.
If Ketner doesn’t run, there are a few other Democrats who said they might consider making the race.
One potential candidate is former state Rep. Robert Barber, who was very competitive in the 1st district in his unsuccessful 2006 lieutenant governor bid. Barber, who garnered 32 percent as the 1st district nominee in 1994, would bring a considerable amount of name ID to a Congressional race against Brown. But when reached on Monday, he said he has made no decisions regarding his future political plans.
Another name that has been mentioned as a possible candidate in the 1st is state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis.
Stavrinakis, a former chairman of the Charleston County Council, said a Congressional bid would be something he might consider if Ketner passes. But, he said, any decision would have to wait until after the state legislative session.
More Democrats could begin moving off the fence as talk continues to swirl about a primary challenge to Brown. Indeed, since Campbell made it know he was contemplating taking on the 73-year-old Congressman, some Republicans have begun to wonder if Brown might announce his retirement before the 2010 race.
But the Congressman’s campaign dismissed any talk that he might be ready to step down.
“He’s definitely planning to run, there’s no question,— Brown campaign adviser Rod Shealy said last week, adding that the Brown campaign made a decision in the final weeks of the 2008 race to hold back a half-million dollars in an effort to begin the 2010 cycle on strong financial footing.
In the 2nd district, which runs from Hilton Head Island to Columbia, Miller appears to be moving toward a rematch with Wilson.
While he hasn’t made any definite decision, Miller said last week that he has already begun fundraising for another Congressional bid and hopes to raise enough money to put a poll in the field.
“We spent last campaign trying to get attention at the national level,— he said last week. “I think everybody takes us seriously now.—
And the fiscally conservative Miller said he hopes that the respect he earned last time will open up some new national fundraising networks in 2010.
For its part, the DCCC was happy to praise the races that Miller and Ketner ran in the previous cycle, but spokeswoman Jessica Santillo declined to reveal how that might affect the committee’s targeting plans in 2010.
“The last election showed that when candidates reflect the values of their district, the state can be competitive,— Santillo said.
She added that the country’s current economic woes — namely Gov. Mark Sanford’s (R) increasingly public role because of his decision to decline money directed to the state through the recently passed economic stimulus bill — could help change the state’s political landscape next year.
“Republicans’ blatant opposition to economic recovery efforts in the face of double- digit unemployment is likely to make South Carolina even more competitive in 2010,— she said.
Correction: March 18, 2009
The article incorrectly reported Rep. Henry Brown’s (R-S.C.) winning percentage in 2008. He won re-election with 52 percent.