Tax plan, gay gaffes cost DeMint lead in S.C. race

COLUMBIA, S.C. — A funny thing happened to Rep. Jim DeMint on his way to joining fellow Republican Lindsey Graham as one of only two new faces South Carolina has sent to the U.S. Senate in the past half-century.

Actually, several things happened to turn what looked like a sure win over Democrat Inez Tenenbaum into a cliffhanger in the race to succeed Democrat Fritz Hollings, who is retiring after 38 years.
file photo
Rep. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.)

The three-term congressman is trying to emulate Graham, who left the House in 2002 to capture the seat of legendary Republican Strom Thurmond. Thurmond retired after a record 48 years in the Senate.

DeMint led Tenenbaum by 12 percentage points in early October but watched his lead evaporate after she put him on the defensive for advocating a national sales tax of up to 23 percent to replace federal income and payroll taxes, and for his controversial comments that “practicing homosexuals” and unmarried pregnant women shouldn’t be allowed to teach in public schools.

“I’m surprised that any candidate with three terms in Congress could be that politically awkward,” said Jack Bass, professor of humanities and social sciences at the College of Charleston and co-author of a 1998 biography of Thurmond. “His comments have definitely hurt him. It’s become the principal issue in the race. The sales-tax issue had already put him on the defensive. Now he’s placed himself further on the defensive.”

Indeed, a statewide poll published Sunday in the Charleston Post & Courier showed that the Senate race is a statistical dead heat. The poll of 625 voters interviewed by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research showed DeMint leading Tenenbaum, the state’s two-term superintendent of education, by a four-point margin that is within the poll’s margin of error.

Some Republicans who were polled said DeMint’s comment, made during an Oct. 3 televised debate with Tenenbaum at the College of Charleston in which he agreed with the state party’s platform that gays and lesbians should not be allowed to teach in public schools, will cost him their vote.

Two days later, DeMint stirred up another hornet’s nest when he told an editorial board at the Aiken Standard that unmarried pregnant women with live-in boyfriends also shouldn’t be allowed to teach in South Carolina’s public schools.

His statements sparked a political firestorm, especially with educators, and even Graham disavowed DeMint’s comments about gays and lesbians. The furor prompted DeMint to issue a carefully worded apology the next day.

But DeMint did not apologize for his earlier remarks about gays and lesbians, even though the Log Cabin Republicans, a national gay organization, demanded an apology. Tenenbaum, who had spent weeks hammering DeMint for his sales-tax proposal, was quick to exploit his controversial comments, calling them “un-American” and unconstitutional.

DeMint’s verbal missteps came on the heels of an earlier incident in which Ginny Allen, the campaign’s director of operations, used a slur about lesbians in an e-mail accidentally sent to a lesbian gay-rights leader. DeMint, 53, apologized to the woman and reprimanded Allen but did not fire her.

DeMint’s troubles prompted Graham to send his top aide, Chief of Staff Richard Perry, to accompany DeMint for the remainder of the campaign and keep him out of trouble. That led a Tenenbaum aide to say that if DeMint “needs a Washington handler … then why in the world would we trust him in the United States Senate?”

Hollings, meanwhile, has limited himself to raising money for Tenenbaum. The state’s most famous politician has not cut any TV ads for her or campaigned with her but has raised nearly a quarter of a million dollars for her race, declaring that he’s always held that a candidate has to get himself or herself elected.

But the 53-year-old Tenenbaum, who is her state’s first female candidate for U.S. senator, has had problems as well, as she tried to separate herself from Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), who was born in South Carolina.

“Kerry is not a popular figure in this state, even though he declared his candidacy in Charleston,” said Lee Bandy, veteran political writer for the Columbia State. “Inez has tried to distance herself from her own party, but a lot of Democrats think she’s overdone it and it’s hurt her with her base,” especially blacks — who make up 27 percent of the state’s electorate — organized labor and women.

The African-American community’s unhappiness with Tenenbaum was made clear by state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, who said she’s focusing her efforts on encouraging black voters to support the Kerry-Edwards ticket rather than Tenenbaum.

“I’m trying to be diplomatic,” said Cobb-Hunter, a former leader of the state’s House Democrats, when asked about Tenenbaum. “Let me put it this way: Inez has run the kind of campaign most white Southerners think she needs to. I hope she’s proven right.”

Tenenbaum, who earlier fired her campaign manager and longtime media consultant after supporters complained about the poor quality of her ads, also raised Democratic eyebrows — and ire — when she refused to join Edwards on the stage at a recent rally in Columbia.

DeMint has seized on that in the six debates they’ve had, asking if she would vote for Kerry and for Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) for Senate leader if elected. She said she will vote for Kerry, even though she supports President Bush on the Iraq war, but sidestepped the question on Daschle, saying the race is about who can serve South Carolina better.

DeMint’s slide in the polls caused the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) to intercede in a race once thought to be safely in GOP hands.

“The NRSC is pouring money into the state that they would rather spend elsewhere,” Bandy said. “They thought they had this race in the bag and could spend their money in South Dakota and Oklahoma, but they’ve really had to spend it here.”

The NRSC had promised to give DeMint $465,000 but now plans to spend an additional $1.3 million on ads attacking Tenenbaum for her liberal views and for failing to raise student test scores while spending $650,000 as education superintendent on meals and travel.

At the same time, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and friendly 527 groups have contributed about $2.5 million to help Tenenbaum mount an ad campaign targeting DeMint’s sales-tax proposal, his support of trade agreements that Democrats say have sent 70,000 South Carolina jobs overseas and his spotty House attendance record.

Still, most political observers say Tenenbaum faces an uphill race in a state that gave George W. Bush 57 percent of the vote in 2000. Like the Senate race in North Carolina, this one may be determined by the length of Bush’s coattails. The same Mason-Dixon poll that showed Tenenbaum and DeMint virtually tied also showed that the Bush-Cheney ticket would beat Kerry and Edwards 53-40 percent.