The Republican U.S. Senate primary runoff in South Carolina has a lot in common with the Bush vs. Buchanan presidential primary in 1992, except for one thing: This time, the Buchanan Brigades might win.
Back in 1992, when I was Buchanan’s statewide coordinator in South Carolina, opposing free trade was a losing proposition for Republican candidates. Then-Gov. Carroll Campbell was an ardent free trader and thousands of South Carolinians working in our red-hot economy got paychecks from companies like BMW, Michelin, and Fuji. Eventually, Campbell’s handpicked successor, David Beasley, would become governor and continue to sing the praises of free trade. In 2000, Beasley referenced George W. Bush’s pro-trade stance as a reason to support Bush in the South Carolina presidential primary.
But a lot has happened in South Carolina since then. First, Gov. Beasley lost his job in the 1998 election, then thousands of South Carolinians lost theirs in the recent recession. For the first time in a decade, South Carolina’s jobless rate exceeded the national unemployment number.
And in David Beasley, the Buchanan Brigades were reborn.
Trade has become the central public-policy issue in today’s U.S. Senate runoff between Republicans Beasley and three-term congressman Jim DeMint. Beasley as remade himself as an opponent of wide-open international trade, while DeMint is an unapologetic free trader in the tradition of Carroll Campbell–who started his career representing the same congressional district.
Beasley’s TV ads have pounded away at the alleged costs of free trade on South Carolina’s textile industry, featuring scenes of Beasley standing outside shuttered factories claiming that “unfair trade” from China and other countries has cost South Carolina 50,000 jobs. Beasley supports a moratorium on all trade agreements and an immediate 28.5 percent retaliatory tariff on Chinese goods. Not surprisingly, Beasley has the financial support of Roger Milliken and other textile magnates who supported Buchanan in the past.
DeMint has not backed down from his free-trade message. He insists that free trade benefits American workers over time and that South Carolina is particularly vulnerable to the job-killing impacts of a trade war. DeMint points to statistics from the South Carolina Commerce Department and others indicating that, while 50,000 jobs may have been lost to trade competitors, 49,000 have been created by foreign investment in South Carolina during the same period. He also blames most of South Carolina’s job losses on the national recession, not competition from abroad.
DeMint’s unflinching support of free trade in the heart of southern mill country has made him a cause célèbre among free-trade advocates like the Cato Institute and the Club for Growth. It is probably making fellow free-trader George W. Bush pretty happy, too.
However, Beasley is quick to point out that in the primary two weeks ago, he beat the upstate congressman in three of the four counties that make up DeMint’s own district. Beasley was also the top vote-getter overall in that six-way primary with 36 percent of the vote, while DeMint’s 26 percent narrowly edged out low-country businessman and political novice Thomas Ravenel for a spot in today’s runoff. Beasley also remains very popular among evangelicals who tend to have a significant impact on low-turnout elections like today’s. Add strong turnout from textile workers and anti-free-traders and Beasley could have the edge.
CASE STUDY IN OPPORTUNISM
But the buzz from the Palmetto State is that he doesn’t. The smart money is on DeMint, not because of Beasley’s trade stance, but because of how he got there.
Many GOP voters are still upset that Beasley lost the governor’s mansion in 1998 to an unknown Democrat, Rep. Jim Hodges, in a heavily Republican state. Beasley damaged himself repeatedly by flip-flopping on key issues, such as the lottery, video poker, and the Confederate flag that flew atop the State House. Again and again, Beasley’s opportunism undermined his campaign.
After running in 1994 on a pledge to keep the Confederate flag flying, for example, Beasley went on ABC’s Nightline in 1996 to say that God had come to him in the night and told him that the Confederate flag should be removed from the State House.
Most observers believe Beasley’s actions were motivated by his desire to be a serious player at the national political level in 2000, or perhaps even sooner. As Bob Taylor, a dean in the business school at Bob Jones University, put it: “[Beasley] took on the flag because he wanted to clean up the state’s image so he could run nationally.”
For nearly four years as governor, David Beasley denounced a state-run lottery as immoral and destructive to families. He would not sign a law even allowing a referendum on the topic. Then, just weeks before the ‘98 election and just hours before a debate with his pro-lottery opponent, Beasley suddenly reversed himself again and dropped his opposition to a lottery referendum. Beasley’s political handler at the time, Tucker Eskew, acknowledged it was pure, political expediency. “Hodges is killing us with the lottery,” Eskew told me at the time.
DeMint has used his TV ads to remind Republican voters of Beasley’s previous political agility, thereby raising questions about Beasley’s true convictions on issues like trade. If Beasley’s sudden shift from Bush “free trader” to Buchanan “fair trader” is merely another political calculation, it is likely to leave some of his potential voters uninspired.
THE BRIGADES LOSE, AGAIN?
Meanwhile, DeMint has been endorsed by the two other major candidates who failed to make the runoff, fellow free-trader Ravenel and former Attorney General Charlie Condon. Condon received ten percent of the vote and was the leading candidate among Confederate flag supporters, many of whom still haven’t forgiven Beasley for his flip-flop on the issue.
Geography is also a key factor in today’s runoff. While Beasley narrowly lost to DeMint in the upstate region, he did extremely poorly in the low-country area, around Charleston. The devout David Beasley has never been popular in Charleston, where Republicans are known to occasionally take a drink of liquor and stay up past bedtime. Ravenel and Condon are both from Charleston and they are both endorsing DeMint.
The Wall Street Journal is watching the Beasley/DeMint election closely. They see it as a referendum on the free-trade policies of President Bush and the Republican Congress. If Beasley loses, they’re likely to declare yet another defeat for Buchananism.
That’s not fair to my old friend Pat. Buchanan’s character was never an issue.
–Radio-talk-host Michael Graham is an NRO contributor.