Republican hopes of enlarging their 51-seat majority in the U.S. Senate this fall got a boost in South Carolina this week, as conservative Rep. Jim DeMint won the Republican nomination for the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Ernest Hollings.
In a landslide that was unanticipated by pundits, DeMint (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 91%) took 59% of the vote in a run-off against former Gov. David Beasley. DeMint’s margin of victory was particularly dramatic because Beasley had won the initial primary 37% to 26%, with DeMint scraping into second place only 5,000 votes ahead of third place finisher Tom Ravenel.
Ravenal, however, endorsed DeMint in the runoff, and DeMint carried Ravenel’s homebase of Charleston with 77% of the vote.
Trade was one of the few issues on which DeMint and Beasley differed. DeMint is a free trader, while Beasley took a strong protectionist stance, which historically has been popular in South Carolina, where the textile industry has declined in recent years as textile production has moved to Mexico, the Caribbean and Asia.
But much of the campaign focused on controversies surrounding Beasley’s 1994-98 term as governor. For example, Beasley had long promised to veto any lottery bill, but reversed himself in 1998 when Democratic gubernatorial opponent Jim Hodges began catching up with him in the polls. (Hodges eventually defeated Beasley for re-election). Beasley was also criticized while governor for making bogus claims about his collegiate athletic skills, such as claiming to have run the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds.
As he attempted a political comeback this year, the former governor carried a lot of baggage and many Republicans worried that he would be the more vulnerable nominee against the Democratic candidate, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Inez Tannenbaum. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R.-S.C.) endorsed DeMint over Beasley in the run-off, and the congressman ended up carrying 32 out of the state’s 45 counties.
The 52-year-old DeMint was hailed by conservatives last year when he held his ground against tremendous pressure from the House GOP leadership and the White House and was one of only 25 Republican House members to vote against President Bush’s controversial Medicare prescription drug proposal, the first new federal entitlement in 40 years. Although both the President and White House political operative Karl Rove had initially encouraged DeMint to make the Senate race, they kept their distance from the South Carolinian following his “no” vote on the drug bill, and this led to speculation that the White House would not be upset if someone else won the nomination. Following the run-off, however, DeMint spokesman John Hart told me that President Bush called DeMint “to congratulate him and indicated his strong support for November.”