Politics & Policy

The Revolutionary

Jim DeMint will be no Senate bench warmer.

There was a moment, about two weeks ago, when it looked like South Carolina Democrats might make it a race for the U.S. Senate. Inez Tenenbaum–their candidate to replace Fritz Hollings–was reaping the benefits of a smart, well-financed campaign. She was successfully spinning Rep. Jim DeMint’s support for replacing the income tax with a national sales tax as a tax hike on South Carolina families. And DeMint wasn’t doing himself any favors with kooky comments about banning unwed mothers and homosexuals from public-school classrooms.

Thanks to these converging events, there was a moment when Tenenbaum was within the margin of error among likely voters–and a Democratic upset was within reach.

That moment is gone.

It hasn’t been pretty, but Jim DeMint and the South Carolina Republicans have gotten the race back to where it should have been all along: a big win for the GOP. The Republican party’s own polling has DeMint up by eight points, while the latest SurveyUSA poll has DeMint up by 13 percent. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, Republican or Democrat, in a state where the GOP controls the governor’s mansion and the legislature, and where President Bush will take 60 percent of the vote.

Why was the race ever close? Two reasons, both of them good news for Republicans.

First, Inez Tenenbaum is the most electable Democrat in South Carolina. As superintendent of education, she trounced her GOP opponents in two consecutive races. She did well with suburban Republicans, particularly women. If there was any Democrat who could give the Republicans a run for their money, she was the candidate.

And the result? The Democrats’ “best of the best” is likely to lose by ten percent or more.

After decades as a straight-ticket Democratic state, South Carolina is simply no longer in the business of sending Democrats to the national legislature. Other than the majority-black 6th District, there is only one other Democrat from South Carolina, Rep. John Spratt. He has survived several close races owing to his 22 years of seniority and relatively moderate politics. But there is almost universal agreement that when he retires, his replacement will be a Republican.

The other reason DeMint struggled in this campaign is that he’s running as a candidate who actually matters. As President Bush can attest, that’s always a risky proposition.

While the word “dynamic” will never be used to describe Jim DeMint (he comes from the policy-wonk end of the political spectrum), in some ways he’s the most exciting U.S. Senate candidate in South Carolina’s history. While most local politicians live by the motto “Never say anything interesting enough to be remembered,” DeMint has been openly campaigning on meaningful, worthwhile, and (therefore) controversial issues. Given that South Carolina’s most recent U.S. senators spent their time a) trying to say awake or b) impersonating Foghorn Leghorn of Warner Brothers cartoon fame, Jim DeMint is a true revolutionary.

For example, Jim DeMint has refused to “nuance” his strong position on trade. In a tough fight against the Democrats–and an even tougher GOP primary this summer–DeMint never wavered in his support for free trade, in practice or in principle.

But DeMint is winning anyway. He rightly argues that a family in Columbia shouldn’t have to pay more for school clothes to subsidize one of Tenenbaum’s rich mill-owner buddies. DeMint must be doing something right, seeing as he derives some of his strongest support from the textile-heavy upstate region of South Carolina.

And while it’s true that DeMint isn’t trumpeting tax reform as loudly as he once did, he refuses to back down from the idea that getting rid of the IRS is a good thing, even good enough to justify a national sales tax. Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings spent a total of 86 years in the U.S. Senate and together they never championed an idea as fundamental and transforming as this.

The issue hurt DeMint, no doubt. Tenenbaum turned every debate question from abortion to space exploration into an attack on DeMint’s “23 percent tax hike on the middle class.” It gave the Democrats a short-term boost, but eventually voters realized that Tenenbaum’s fundamental position on tax reform was “Let’s keep the IRS and give it more things to do.”

My prediction: If South Carolina’s elections were held on April 15, Inez would poll just ahead of Ralph Nader.

In many ways, Jim DeMint was a high-risk candidate for the South Carolina Republican party, where ideologues have long been out of style. We’ve always had more success with the Strom Thurmond model: hands-on constituent service, lots of parade appearances, and a general avoidance of contentious issues. DeMint is instead trying to invest the GOP’s natural capital in South Carolina in advancing the next generation of ideas. Why waste a relatively safe seat in the U.S. Senate on a bench warmer who spends all day sending congratulatory notes to new high-school grads? Why not use our partisan strength to reform Social Security or fundamentally change the tax code?

And DeMint is not alone. South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford–a former colleague of DeMint’s in the House–is also a change agent, pushing for school choice and an end to South Carolina’s income tax. That’s one reason he’s on the list of people to watch in the 2008 presidential race.

A DeMint win is likely to be part of a GOP southern sweep in the U. S. Senate, along with Isakson in Georgia, Burr in North Carolina, Coburn in Oklahoma, Vitter in Louisiana, and (the nail-biter!) Martinez in Florida. Throw in that other corner of the “South,” South Dakota, and Tuesday should be a very good night for yet another Republican revolution.

Radio-talk host Michael Graham covers southern politics from his home in Virginia. He is an NRO contributor.

Michael GrahamMichael Graham was born in Los Angeles and raised in South Carolina. A graduate of Oral Roberts University, he worked as a stand-up comedian before beginning his political career as ...

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