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Big Names Headline S.C. Open-Seat Race

A little more than a week after Rep. Henry Brown’s (R-S.C.) announcement that he will not seek re-election, several Republicans with political chops and recognizable surnames are poised to join an increasingly crowded primary.

And although the final field is far from set, the race could be colored by shades of the 1994 open-seat battle in the Charleston-based district.

On Tuesday, Charleston County Councilman Paul Thurmond, son of the legendary late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), announced his plan to form an exploratory committee. Former 1st district Rep. Tommy Hartnett also said he’s moving closer to throwing his hat back into the political ring.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Chip Limehouse told local papers that he’s considering entering the primary and state Sen. Larry Grooms, who recently dropped his gubernatorial bid, has yet to shut the door on a Congressional run.

Another intriguing possibility being floated in South Carolina GOP circles has state Rep. Tim Scott, a black Republican running for lieutenant governor, switching races and seeking the 1st district nod. Scott could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

If Thurmond, Hartnett and any of the state legislators do enter the GOP fray, they will join Carroll Campbell III, the namesake son of a late former governor, and a pair of lesser-known candidates who have already filed.

While it’s not likely to tip the balance of power in the House, shades of the historic 1994 election can be seen in how the open-seat contest is shaping up.

Rod Shealy, a longtime South Carolina GOP political consultant said that even though the race will feature one, if not two, political dynasties as well as well-heeled politicians, there’s a case to be made that a wealthy outsider could end up on top.

“Several factors make this a lot like 1994, which is the year that four or five heavyweights jumped into that race and went to town, and a little-known businessman with no political experience came from nowhere and became the Congressman,— said Shealy, who worked with Brown.

That Republican was Mark Sanford, now the state’s embattled governor.

But back in 1994, the then-34-year-old Sanford was a successful real estate developer who had never run for office before. He gave his campaign $100,000, ran against Congress and beat the son of a former Congressman and a former state highway commissioner in the primary. He went on to beat the assumed favorite, former GOP state chairman Van Hipp, in the runoff.

Then, like today, South Carolina was in the midst of an open-seat gubernatorial race, which helped drive turnout, and Sanford was running in one of the most anti-Washington, D.C., years in recent memory.

Sanford’s “message was, ‘I’m a businessman, and I’m not a politician,’— Shealy said. “Which is why a businessman self-funder could probably jump in and do very well.—

Shealy, who has yet to sign on with a 1st district campaign but acknowledged that he may do so, said he’s had conversations with individuals in the district who may fit that mold, though he declined to name them.

Fundraising ability will be a key factor in the upcoming contest, especially with Brown announcing his retirement just six months before the primary. But South Carolina GOP political consultant Adam Temple said the open-seat race presents an important opportunity for both a well-funded political outsider and some of the more recognizable names being floated.

“Now the race has transitioned from ‘I’m running against Henry’ to ‘What are you going to do?’— Temple said. “Somebody is going to have to come in similar to Mark Sanford in 1994 and say, ‘This is what’s wrong, and this is what I’m going to do.’ … If it’s a wealthy businessman, they need to articulate that. If it’s a politician, they need to point to what is in their record that’s indicative of that.—

Thurmond acknowledged in an interview this week that he was “very fortunate in the family I was born into. … My background and my experience is in part due to what I was exposed to and the way I was brought up.—

But he said he hopes to be able to distinguish himself on his record.

“Obviously with county council we’re dealing with a much smaller budget, but I’ve stood for less government and less expenses and fairness in taxes,— he said.

Hartnett said he is looking at a Congressional bid as something akin to a political “rescue mission.—

“I’m really concerned about how much time this country might have left to stop or at least slow down the slide that we’re taking into … economic oblivion, to socialistic programs and government running everything.—

Hartnett pointed out that his three previous terms in Congress would benefit the 1st district because it would give him a leg up in terms of seniority among the freshman class of the 112th Congress.

“I don’t think we have time for young people going up there and worrying about establishing seniority,— he said.

Campbell, who has been in the race since late September, has worked to establish himself among the key players in South Carolina political circles. This week the business management consultant and entrepreneur announced the endorsement of three former South Carolina Republican Party chairmen, including Hipp.

“Carroll Campbell will be a strong grass roots conservative, pro-small business voice in Congress,— Hipp said in the release.

In response to Thurmond’s entrance into the race, Campbell’s camp on Wednesday released results from a campaign poll from last summer that showed the son of the former governor with a higher name recognition than the son of the former Senator.

Democrats are still searching for a candidate who might make the open-seat race competitive, after businesswoman Linda Ketner held Brown to his lowest re-election percentage in 2008.

After briefly reconsidering her decision in the wake of Brown’s retirement announcement, Ketner told supporters Wednesday that she will stick by her original plan to skip the 2010 election.

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