February 12, 2004,
There are two Republicans on the House transportation committee who are refusing to support its chairman's $375 billion, tax-hiking highway bill. Jim DeMint of South Carolina is one of them. DeMint is also a leading proponent of creating individual investment accounts as part of Social Security. He is speaking up for free trade in a state that is thought to be hostile to it. When I met with him in late January, he told me that he was reading Amartya Sen's Development as Freedom. (An "interesting" book, he said, while allowing that the author is a socialist.) He also said that he wanted to modify the Medicare-reform bill that recently passed, without his vote, so that medical-savings accounts would be useful to seniors. DeMint is, in short, a conservative policy wonk.
He is also a Senate candidate, running for the seat Democrat Fritz Hollings is giving up. A year or so ago, DeMint seemed to be the candidate that the national Republican powers-that-be wanted. He retains much of that support. But former governor David Beasley jumped into the primary race last month, and he's leading DeMint in the polls. Former attorney general Charlie Condon is just barely ahead of DeMint.
The DeMint campaign dismisses the poll results as a function of his relative lack of statewide recognition. Beasley and Condon have both run statewide, while DeMint hasn't. (They have also both lost races statewide.) With $1.5 million in the bank, the campaign can increase the public's familiarity with the candidate in time for the June primary.
The three leading candidates generally see eye to eye on the issues. Beasley, DeMint, and Condon are against abortion, for Social Security reform, and take the other standard conservative positions. It is on trade that the candidates chiefly differ, and the race will be, in part, a referendum on the issue. DeMint is running as a fairly solid free trader, and betting that the state's economy is changing and that the politics will follow. Beasley used to be a free trader himself: He argued against Pat Buchanan's protectionism during the 1996 primaries, when he backed Bob Dole. But he has flipped on the issue, and protectionist textile magnate Roger Milliken is now backing him. Condon, meanwhile, is using the national-security argument against Chinese textile imports. In part because of the trade issue, the Chamber of Commerce is backing DeMint.
Republicans are worried that Inez Tenenbaum, the state superintendent of schools, will be a strong candidate for the Democrats. She has been selling herself as a sort of Zell Miller Democrat. Any Democrat running in South Carolina this fall will of course have to contend with a strong tide for President Bush. But after twice failing to beat Hollings in races where they thought they had a chance, the Republicans want to make sure to nominate their strongest candidate.
For some of them, that candidate is Beasley. He has run statewide; and while he lost the race for a second term as governor, the issues that hurt him then (video poker, the Confederate flag) may have faded a bit. Some Republicans theorize that the state's voters prefer to have one senator from the low country and another from up country a theory that tells against DeMint, sort of, since he's from the same area as Senator Lindsey Graham.
Is DeMint too wonkish to win statewide? The race for the Republican nomination for governor, in 2002, suggests that a focus on policy might not be a liability for a candidate. The party establishment rallied behind Bob Peeler, but Mark Sanford, an equally conservative but more ideas-oriented candidate, beat him and went on to win the general election. DeMint says, "Sanford won on ideas and the other guys tried to win on image or the old South Carolina or narrow ideas." But he adds a warning: "If I lose on trade, everyone in the South will run away from it."