At the end of a very long table of Republican candidates looking to replace outgoing Congressman Henry Brown (R-Hanahan), Mark Lutz stood up to answer a question on shrinking the federal government. “By the time you get down here, you’ve probably heard all the answers,” he said.
Stovall Witte started to count his fellow candidates — two seated to the left of him and five seated to the right — noting, “I think we have a few more running that aren’t here.”
He was right. Within 48 hours of the Dorchester candidate forum last weekend, Horry County accountant Clark Parker and Mt. Pleasant Councilman Ken Glasson became candidates nine and 10.
Ask Ryan Buckhannon how many credible candidates are in the race and he’ll tell you: three.
“We weren’t scared of stepping on the establishment’s toes,” the Isle of Palms councilman says. The “we” he’s referring to is perpetual candidate Katherine Jenerette, Carroll “Tumpy” Campbell, and himself. All three announced their campaigns prior to Brown’s surprise exit from the race on Jan. 4.
The Republican Workhorse’s departure prompted a slew of new batters — including former Charleston County School Board member Larry Kobrovsky, state Rep. Tim Scott, and Charleston County Councilman Paul Thurmond.
These folks are jumping at an opportunity that doesn’t come around too often — Brown held on to the seat for a decade, and Mark Sanford had it for six years before him.
But Buckhannon and the other early challengers weren’t running to fill an empty seat; they were trying to get Brown out of the way. And they’d like a little credit for that.
“The problems in Washington didn’t start on Jan. 4,” Buckhannon says.
The candidates may also be inspired by this moment in political history, with Washington set to make big decisions in the coming years on healthcare, the environment, and immigration.
“And some of them might come down to one vote,” says Jeri Cabot, a political science professor at the College of Charleston.
Out of respect for Henry Brown, Thurmond initially decided against running, but jumped into the 1st District race last month when Brown bowed out. He’s not surprised by the growing list of candidates.
“A lot of people are very upset,” Thurmond says, noting the issues of government spending and mounting debt as motivators. “There’s a lot of interest in wanting to get up there and right this ship.”
With the country taking its first steps out of the Great Recession, campaigns for every elected office have struggled to find the money needed to effectively campaign. That challenge only grows with every new contender.
“There’s only so much money to go around,” Cabot says. “It makes it tough.”
Besides the breadth of the GOP primary bench, the hometowns of the candidates are also raising some eyebrows. All of them come from the Lowcountry, except for Jenerette and Parker.
Grand Strand GOP activist John Bonsignor is putting a call out to his fellow Horry County Republicans for a little competition from farther up the narrow district. He warns that Myrtle Beach priorities like Interstate 73 and Georgetown priorities like river dredging may go to the wayside.
“There are issues that are unique to the Grand Strand and Georgetown, and no one seems to be addressing them,” Bonsignor says.
Bonsignor’s bet is that a competitive Horry County candidate can make a run-off. Considering that Henry Brown would have lost his reelection had it not been for strong support in Myrtle Beach, there’s some logic behind Bonsignor’s gamble.
After lobbying several state legislators from the region to no avail, Bonsignor is pressing Randall Wallace to step into the race, but the Horry County councilman hasn’t been convinced yet.
For now, Bonsignor is looking for something from the other candidates that he hasn’t heard yet.
“They’ve got to get out of the packaged message,” he says.
That message is the one you’ve heard at every Tea Party rally and on every hour of conservative talk radio: wasteful liberal spending, common-sense conservative solutions, and responsive government. Successful candidates will have to point out something in their records that goes beyond talking points, Cabot says.
Scott, for example, spends time on his website connecting the dots between his time leading Charleston County Council and the recent economic development win for the region with Boeing’s second Dreamliner facility. Thurmond spends time on the stump talking about his experience losing a small business in the recession.
If it’s a matter of getting people’s attention, two candidates are at an advantage as the sons of two Republican legends: Carroll Campbell and Strom Thurmond.
But everybody, even these guys, are going to have to get beyond the name recognition and rhetoric and offer specifics that will set them apart from the seven other like-minded conservatives.
“They need to get concrete about a suggestion — provide a well-vetted proposal about economic development or jobs,” Cabot says.
It’s important to note that it’s a month before the candidates make it official — when a nearly $4,000 check is handed in with filing forms. Those three zeroes require a moment’s pause, but only a moment. When the seat was open for all takers in 2000, only two of eight announced candidates bowed out before filing in March.
That four grand is going to pull the major league players out of the minors. But, at least for now, they’re all swinging for the same fence.
We heard it from Thurmond, but it might as well have come from any of the players: “I think I can make a difference.”