It’s a classic case of “good news/bad news” for South Carolina Democrats. School Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum, their strongest candidate, has decided to enter the race for Fritz Hollings’s U.S. Senate seat. If anyone can win that seat for the Democrats, it’s her.
The bad news: She can’t.
Winning statewide elections is a tough job for South Carolina Democrats under the best of circumstances. Last year — in one of those infamous off-year elections that was supposed to go against the Republicans — the S.C. GOP won seven of the nine constitutional offices, knocking off incumbent governor Jim Hodges along the way. Congressman Lindsey Graham made easy work of former College of Charleston President Alex Sanders to keep Strom Thurmond’s seat for the GOP.
The one bright spot for Democrats, however, was vote-magnet Tenenbaum. In 1998, she beat a credible GOP opponent to win the superintendent’s job with 58 percent of the vote. In 2002, with the state Democratic party collapsing around her, Tenenbaum’s share of the vote actually went up. In fact, Tenenbaum got more votes her last time out than Strom Thurmond did in his.
And don’t let the name fool you. She gets it from her husband, Sam, a long-time Democratic activist and fundraiser with plenty of political savvy. His only flaw is his insistence that anti-Semitism is a significant force among the South Carolina electorate. Some shortsighted Republicans engaged in wishful thinking privately agree.
But even if Inez shared his faith (she’s a Methodist), there is no evidence that it would have hurt her political fortunes. And the continuing popularity of Sen. Joe Lieberman in South Carolina supports the notion that being a person of faith is more important for southern voters than being a person of a particular faith.
Tenenbaum is smart, she’s tough, and she’s popular with crossover Republican women. Her camp is also spreading the word about their latest polling: 49 percent-35 percent head-to-head with GOP congressman Jim DeMint and 48 percent-36 percent over former state Attorney General Charlie Condon.
Only one problem: She’s running for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat in South Carolina in 2004. And that’s almost certainly a losing proposition.
Forget Tenenbaum’s poll numbers against candidates like DeMint and Condon, because DeMint’s never run statewide and Condon’s the least-electable Republican in the state of South Carolina this side of John McCain. After eight years as attorney general, Condon polled an embarrassing 16 percent in the 2002 gubernatorial primary.
More important is Tenenbaum’s fundamental political/ideological problem. In California or New York, she might be able to pass herself off as a moderate. (On social issues, she’s definitely to the right of a certain Republican gubernatorial candidate and movie star.) But in South Carolina, she and Charleston Mayor Joe Riley represent the liberal wing of the state’s Democratic party. In fact, a cursory glance of elected Democrats indicates they are the liberal wing.
That fact alone may doom her candidacy. Despite all the positives she has as a person and a candidate, Inez Tenenbaum simply doesn’t come close to representing the beliefs of South Carolina voters.
It’s one thing to be a left-of-center, “for the children” Hillaryite running the state’s under-performing school system. It’s another thing to ask South Carolina voters to send you to Washington to actually vote with Hillary. Nobody cares what the state schoolmarm’s position is on the death penalty, abortion, gun control, judicial nominees, etc., but for a U.S. senator, these are meat-and-potatoes (or perhaps in S.C., “meat-and-three-veg”) issues.
Oh, and did I mention George W. Bush will be at the top of the ticket?
In 1998, I predicted that the voters of South Carolina simply would not elect a woman named Tenenbaum to statewide office, even if she was a quality candidate. I was pleased to be proven wrong.
In 2004, with President Bush seeking reelection against the Tenenbaum-endorsed Howard Dean (Inez, you will endorse your party’s presidential nominee, won’t you?), the voters will reject the idea of a Senator Tenenbaum…and this time, for all the right reasons.
— Michael Graham, a radio talk-show host, is author of Redneck Nation: How the South Really Won the War.