Myrtle Beach, S.C. — Tim Scott, the newest member of the U.S. Senate, got a hero’s welcome from the groups meeting here for the South Carolina Tea Party Convention this weekend. Scott, who replaced Jim DeMint as South Carolina’s junior senator this month, has had a meteoric rise in politics. Five years ago he was a member of Charleston’s city council. Since then he has won a seat in the state legislature, and in 2010, he became the first African-American Republican elected to the House from a Deep South state in decades.
Scott knows the cadences of Sunday preaching well. He has boiled down his message into sound bites that express support for free markets and traditional values, and opposition to all tax increases — all views that are “nothing more than common sense,” he said. When he asked his audience on Sunday what his platform represented, he wasn’t satisfied with the chorus that answered “common sense.” “I can’t hear you,” he exclaimed. The crowd shouted louder, and he spread out his arms and yelled back, “It’s just common sense!”
This Sunday was special to Scott because, he said, “I have the privilege of speaking to both the NAACP and the Tea Party in the same day.” “I love civil rights,” he told the crowd. Then he flashed an impish grin and added, “I just want civil rights for everybody.” With just a few words, Scott instantly bonded with his almost entirely white audience, sending the message “I know you’re not racist, your positions are valid, and it’s the other side that plays favorites.”
The other highlight of this year’s South Carolina Tea Party Convention was the behind-the-scenes maneuvering over who will fill Scott’s congressional seat. His new district stretches from north of touristy Charleston down the coast to include Hilton Head, a haven of upper-income retirees. The district includes several Navy facilities as well as the famous new Boeing aircraft plant that the Obama White House initially claimed was being built in violation of labor laws because Boeing was locating it in a right-to-work state.
The race to replace Scott is proceeding at lightning speed. The two major parties will hold primaries on March 19, with a runoff election April 2 in the event that one or both primaries fails to produce a majority winner. The general election strongly favors a Republican, but Barack Obama carried Charleston, the largest county in the district, twice. That means that under the right set of circumstances, a moderate Democrat might have a chance.
Democrats believe the most favorable circumstance for them would be a political comeback by former Republican governor Mark Sanford. Sanford, who represented the area in the House between 1995 and 2003, would start the race for the GOP nomination with the most name recognition and well over $500,000 sitting in old political accounts. With Charleston television costing about $75,000 a week for a full slate of ads, Sanford’s money would give him a head start.
But Sanford’s name recognition is not entirely positive for him. He left office in 2009 with a reasonable approval rating of 49 percent, but many people were also glad to see him go. He infamously admitted to an affair with an Argentinian journalist, and his wife and former top advisor, Jennie Sanford, subsequently divorced him. Last August, he announced he was going to marry the woman with whom he had cheated on his wife. Not surprisingly, Sanford’s private polls show that he has serious problems with many voters, and especially with women.
Nonetheless, the consensus is that Sanford would still be likely to win enough votes to gain a spot in the primary runoff. In that case, the other candidates would scramble for the other spot.
The front-runners come from a wide spectrum of the Republican party. The establishment choice is state representative Chip Limehouse, who also heads the state’s Aviation Authority. His father, Buck Limehouse, is a former head of the state’s Transportation Department; between father and son, they have a network of well-connected lobbyists to tap for campaign contributions. Former state senator John Kuhn is likely to tap into his personal fortune, to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars, and he could also be a factor in the Charleston area.
The tea-party members attending the convention here appeared to split their support between Sanford and state senator Larry Grooms, whose district north of Charleston includes about one out of six potential primary voters. Both men worked the crowd at the gathering. Grooms said he had the better claim to the allegiance of grassroots activists there. “I was Tea Party before it was cool,” he said. “I sponsored the main school-choice bill for years and pushed for transparency in the legislature.”
But Sanford has his supporters as well. “He was a true fiscal conservative in both Congress and as governor,” Peggy Geraghty, of Beaufort County, told me. “He never fell in with the spenders.”
If Sanford does not run, or if he stumbles out of the starting gate, the beneficiary could be newcomer Teddy Turner, a 49-year-old economics teacher at Charleston Collegiate High School. Turner graduated from the Citadel, Charleston’s prestigious military college. But he is fated to be best known as a son of Ted Turner, the liberal founder of CNN and a global philanthropist who gave a billion dollars to the United Nations.
I ask Turner how he will respond to the attack ads that will undoubtedly link him with his father. “I was raised strictly when my father was still a conservative,” he tells me. “I’m pro-life, for radical education reform, and for a strong national defense.” He recalls going with his father on an environmentally themed tour of Hawaii and being appalled that the group wasn’t going to visit Pearl Harbor because the memorial there “glorified” war. “That’s not me and never will be,” he says.
Turner spoke with his father after he decided to run, and his dad’s biggest question was “how much the bare minimum — not the maximum — was that he could contribute” to his son’s campaign. Turner says he expects the other candidates will tear each other apart, leaving space for a political outsider such as himself to make it into the runoff.
Democrats are also trying to recruit their own political outsider: the sister of Stephen Colbert, the Comedy Central host who grew up in Charleston’s tony Battery district. Elizabeth Colbert-Busch, business-development director at a local wind-turbine facility, is seriously considering entering the race. After all, her brother already set up a super-PAC in 2012 to lampoon campaign-finance laws; he could set up a real one to benefit his big sis’s campaign.
A fallen governor in search of redemption, the son of a liberal media mogul, and possibly the sister of a snarky TV star. The first special election for the House this year may turn out to be a truly special — and entertaining — event.
— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for NRO.