By Michael Graham
ome worried SC Republicans would like former Governor Carroll Campbell to bring Atwater-style politics back to the Palmetto State. But after six years as a Washington lobbyist, is Campbell up to the job?
In 1996, after rescuing the faltering candidacy of Bob Dole with a solid win in the South Carolina primary, Carroll Campbell was on every Republican's Veep short list.
Four years later, still a former governor and with another crucial presidential primary win under his belt (for George W. Bush), Carroll Campbell is back on the short list...for governor.
"I'd like to come back home," Campbell is quoted as saying when asked about his political future. He's ruled out a run for the Senate while hinting at his desire to restore Republican control of the South Carolina governor's mansion.
But home isn't the same place it was in 1994, when Carroll Campbell left South Carolina to head the American Council of Life Insurance in Washington, D.C. In the 1994 election, the SC GOP took four of the state's six congressional seats, a majority in the state House of Representatives, and all but one of the constitutional offices. Even without Lee Atwater, the legendary Campbell machine was able to put a young, unknown legislator into the Governor's mansion. The success of Campbell's hand-picked successor, Gov. David Beasley, is even more impressive given that he switched to the Republican party less than two years before the GOP primary.
And the credit for each of these victories went to Carroll Campbell. But it's been downhill ever since. David Beasley was a disaster as a governor. His lack of gravitas and inability to hold Republican voters made him the state's first incumbent governor ever to lose a re-election bid. That same year, 1998, a weak Republican challenger was easily rebuffed by U.S. Senator Fritz Hollings, who had once topped the Democrats' "most vulnerable" list.
Prospects are not brightening. The steady stream of conservative Democrats switching to the GOP has reversed: Two Republican legislators switched parties this year, leaving the GOP with a razor-thin majority in the state House of Representatives. In November, George W. Bush's name at the top of the ticket will likely help the party hold on to the House. But a lottery referendum on the November ballot will help the Democrats energize their base as well, dashing Republican hopes of taking the state Senate.
So it is not surprising that South Carolina Republicans are longing for the glory days when, under the leadership of Carroll Campbell, the state was on the verge of one-party rule, the Utah of the American South.
But just as the state has changed since 1994, so have the fortunes of former Governor Campbell. Other than the presidential primaries, the famed Campbell organization has lost every major election in the state in the last six years. Just last week, Campbell's choice to fill Congressman Mark Sanford's seat finished 10 points out of first place in the Republican primary, despite enjoying Campbell's open support and outspending the entire field 2-1. Campbell's machine will take the field again in the runoff on June 27, but their candidate is clearly the underdog.
And at the state GOP convention in May, Campbell's choice for party chairman was narrowly defeated by the party faithful. Worse, when Campbell requested an opportunity to address the convention, the motion was booed down by the delegates. Sources close to Campbell say he took this public insult very personally, and it is weighing on his decision about a return to state politics.
Even in victory, Campbell's results are spotty. While he has thrice rescued the failing candidacies of moderate Republican nominees (Bush in '92, Dole in '96, and Bush in 2000), both Campbell-backed candidates went down to defeat in November.
And while the voters have yet to speak on George W., the Campbell strategy for Bush's 11-point win was so toxic that South Carolina is in a virtual political quarantine. "George W. wouldn't touch any South Carolina candidate with a 10-foot pole, " said veteran GOP strategist Rod Shealy. "Especially Carroll Campbell, the guy who sent him to Bob Jones [University] in the first place."
This wasn't Campbell's first Pyrrhic presidential victory. Open speculation that Carroll Campbell might become a serious contender for president himself one day died in 1996. Reports began to circulate that Campbell's vetting by the Dole V.P. committee had not gone well. Interviewees expressed concern about Campbell's race for Congress in 1978 against a popular Jewish Democrat. The campaign was marred by the entrance of a third candidate who campaigned directly against Campbell's Jewish opponent on a platform of "I could never support a candidate who did not accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior." This anti-Semitic candidate was allegedly a plant by Campbell's campaign and its manager, Lee Atwater.
Campbell's V.P. hopes were also hurt by his eight years of gubernatorial service beneath the Confederate battle flag which, while not as crucial an issue in 1996 as today, was still disturbing to the Dole team in Washington.
Whatever the final reason, Campbell was passed over in 1996 and all discussion of a possible White House bid has ended. Campbell has also said publicly that he is no longer interested in assuming Strom Thurmond's U.S. Senate seat in the unlikely event that South Carolina's senior senator turns out to be mortal.
Which leaves the Governor's mansion, and the opportunity to rebuild the once-mighty South Carolina GOP. There are Republicans who long for a return of Carroll Campbell, a successful if abrasive leader who, as former Christian Coalition leader Roberta Combs puts it, "knew how to accomplish the task at hand."
However, other Republicans lay part of the blame for the state's current conditions on Campbell himself. "He smothered every strong Republican who might threaten his control of the party," said one lobbyist with ties to the GOP. "He repeatedly backed weak candidates like Beasley and [Congressman Bob] Inglis, to the point where it seemed intentional. Now he wants to come back and clean up the mess?"
Does Campbell want to come back? There are many winks and nods, but no definitive statements. This is also unlike Carroll Campbell, a politician too smart to waste time flirting when he could be locking down commitments for 2002.
Rumors are circulating around the State House that Campbell has, in fact, extended his contract with the American Council of Life Insurance. If so, it would be a clear indication that he is not seriously considering a return to politics.
But if he ran, would he win? His supporters point to North Carolina's Jim Hunt, a Democrat who returned to the governor's mansion for a very successful second tour of duty. Campbell's opponents mention Bob Scott, a former North Carolina governor who failed to carry a single county. They also note that a Campbell candidacy would be a step backward, perhaps bringing a much-needed win in the short term but thinning out even further the state's Republican bench of future leaders.
Then again, Campbell is a winner. And in South Carolina, as in other Southern states where the GOP's fortunes have fallen, that may be the most important item on Carroll Campbell's resume.