Tracking South Carolina’s political circus

From former governor Mark Sanford’s  “Luv Guv” odyssey last summer to this week’s allegations of GOP plots to field Democratic primary candidates, South Carolina’s politics is colorful, lively and sometimes barely believable. In short, it’s great fodder for both the mainstream media and the Fifth Estate combo of alternative media, bloggers, Tweeters and anyone else with access to the internet.

The circus started last summer, when Governor Mark Sanford disappeared from the radar, only to surface in Argentina, visiting his “soul mate” mistress. Sanford rode out the storm, hanging on to the governor’s office though not to his marriage.

This spring, as four Republican candidates slugged it out in the race for the nomination to succeed Stanford, sex surfaced again. Blogger Will Folks accused Palin-endorsed GOP candidate Nikki Haley of having an “inappropriate physical relationship” with him, becoming simultaneously the subject, source and reporter of the story.

Folks has a master’s degree in journalism (from the University of South Carolina), which would credential him as a traditional journalist, but his center-stage position is at odds with ethical standards for journalists on avoiding conflicts of interest. Muddying the waters further, Folks also served as communications director for Mark Sanford and worked for Nikki Haley in her 2007 campaign.

Everybody involved in the brouhaha is a rock-solid Republican, so the attacks are all intra-party feuding. Larry Marchant, a second GOP accuser said he also had an affair with Haley. Marchant is a GOP consultant and lobbyist who worked for Andre Bauer, another of the four GOP gubernatorial candidates until a day before his June 2 accusations, and just a week before the primary.

On June 8, Haley won the highest number of votes in the primary, but fell just short of an absolute majority, so she will faces a June 22 run-off against second-place Andre Bauer. She categorically denies all charges made against her.

Democratic circus

But wait – there’s more. U.S. Representative James  Clyburn, who easily won his primary race, charged that the GOP had planted three candidates in Democratic primaries. The strangest case involves the winner in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, Alvin Greene. The 32-year-old unemployed veteran got 59 percent of the primary vote to the endorsed candidate Vic Rawl’s 41 percent, after running virtually no campaign.

Greene’s post-election television interviews (Olbermann, SCETV’s Big Picture, and compiled here by TPM), show his claim to “simple, old-fashioned campaigning” by “word of mouth.” He can’t name anyone he met with or any towns he visited, and had no website or Twitter account, and professes to prefer the telephone to email, which he checks occasionally at the library. He also has no comment on his pending charge of felony obscenity.

South Carolina Democratic Party communications director Kianna Page said in a telephone interview that they suspect the GOP of putting Alvin Greene in the race, citing the historic precedent of the GOP paying a homeless man to run for office in 1990. Asked why the Republicans would bother, in a race that GOP incumbent Jim DeMint seems certain to win, Page said that endorsed candidate Vic Rawl had “a real campaign” and a real chance. She cited a May poll of 438 likely voters by SCIndex, which showed Rawl trailing DeMint by only seven percent.  A Public Policy Polling survey at about the same time showed a 19 percent gap.

Charleston City Paper blogger Chris Haire says Greene’s victory was completely random, “decided by any number of factors, Greene’s placement on the ballot ahead of Rawl, a toss of the coin, a fondness for Alvin and the Chipmunks. Who knows?” But, notes Haire:

The Democratic Party should not be surprised that some phantom candidate beat out a known-entity within their party if that entity doesn’t have enough cash to litter the roadways with campaign signs and blanket the TV with campaign ads.

Qualifications don’t mean diddly these days, and most likely they never have. People really don’t care about those things.

The Democratic Party in South Carolina provided two other acts in the primary circus.

In the first, perennial candidate Ben Frasier (17 unsuccessful campaigns) won the nomination over the endorsed Democratic candidate in the First Congressional District. The Republican candidate will be decided in a run-off between Paul Thurmond, son of the late Senator Strom Thurmond, and State Representative Tom Scott, the first black Republican in the state legislature since Reconstruction, according to Politics Daily. Despite Clyburn’s suspicions, SCDP’s Page says no investigation is underway, and “It’s more plausible that he may have won, because he has run before and some people know him.”

Clyburn also thinks that challenger Gregory Brown, whom he beat handily, could have been a GOP plant. Brown hired a GOP-connected political consultant, and ran an expensive campaign, but still ended up with only 5,500 votes.

Sex scandals and the scent of conspiracy landed South Carolina politics in the middle of the news. A quick search of the Charleston City Paper, The State, and the Post and Courier show minimal attention to either of the Congressional races before the election, thought the alternative weekly’s blog coverage was more extensive than the articles in the mainstream newspapers. Too bad that the Congressional races, and issues other than sex, couldn’t get bigger play in new or traditional media before the election.

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