Republican-leaning independents hold the key, and DeMint is facing an as-yet little known Democratic challenger, but one with strong credentials. Many South Carolinians are embarrassed by the state’s national image that flows from Republican hi-jinks. They range from Gov. Mark Sanford’s Argentine “soul mate” on the Appalachian Trail to Rep. Joe Wilson’s “You lie”—and those are only the highlights. This disenchantment, especially among independent voters, is combined with the highest state unemployment rate in the southeast.
After wealthy Rock Hill attorney and political novice Chad McGowan failed to gain traction after filing for the Democratic nomination last October and dropped out in February, a more experienced challenger, still little known, is beginning to dig in. Vic Rawl, six years older than DeMint at 64, served eight years in the legislature and another twelve as a state circuit court judge before stepping down to a law practice that focuses on mediation and arbitration. He is heading to Washington Thursday in response to an invitation from the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee.
One element in Rawl’s favor will be reminding especially older voters of the 38 years when South Carolina was simultaneously represented in the Senate by Republican Strom Thurmond and Democrat Fritz Hollings. No matter who was in the White House, South Carolina’s interests were taken care of.
Despite its national image as among the reddest of the red states, in fact the state has turned more purple in recent years. In the 2008 first-in-the-South presidential primaries, roughly 100,000 more Democrats than Republicans voted. Also that year, 44 of the state’s 46 counties voted more Democratic in the general election than four years earlier. And although Obama did not campaign in the state after the primary and withdrew his full campaign staff to work elsewhere in the general election, he received 45 percent of the vote, four percentage points of John Kerry’s in 2004.
A key factor in November will be African American voter turnout, which hit a record high in 2008. At 30.3 percent of the total registered voters and traditionally more than 95 percent Democratic, if their turnout equals that of whites, it means DeMint would need 70 percent of the white vote to win.
A poll conducted May 22-23 by Public Policy Polling showed DeMint leading Rawl, 49-30, but with only 23 percent of nonwhites in the sample and only 15 percent name recognition for Rawl. Support for DeMint is far stronger among males (45 percent of the electorate) than among females.
Females expressed a 51 percent approval of Obama, compared with 35 percent among males. In a response to DeMint's extensive campaigning for Tea Party candidates around the country, 39 percent of all voters said DeMint focused “not enough” on South Carolina.
Of those polled 52 percent identified as either liberal (12 percent) or moderate (40 percent). Among 2008 John McCain voters, 67 percent expressed approval of DeMint, 14 percent expressed disapproval, and 19 percent were “not sure.” Among Obama voters, it was 13 percent approval, 64 percent disapproval, and 23 percent not sure.
Jim DeMint remains the man to beat, but Vic Rawl gives every indication of being a stealth contender in November.
Jack Bass is professor humanities and social sciences emeritus at the College of Charleston and co-author with Walter DeVries of The Transformation of Southern Politics.