Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Alvin Greene Story: A Post-Mortem of the S.C. Democratic Party

It appears that former U.S. Senate candidate Alvin Greene's 15 minutes of fame are up. After predictably losing big-time to tea party leader Jim DeMint and embarrassing the state Democratic Party enough to force a change in management, the unemployed and criminally-indicted Army dropout will surely, finally recede back into anonymity... Right?

Maybe not. At Greene's "victory" party Tuesday night, the defeated challenger's supporters were outnumbered by members of the media, who did their best to provoke the latest absurd statement from a candidate who has unintentionally inspired hours of late-night monologue material and teevee news kickers. True to self, Greene pranced sheepishly around the reporters before revealing a comic book starring himself as a super-hero.

Yep, you read that right -- from the man who proposed ending the recession by producing action figures of himself, now comes the depiction of an Alvin Greene who can take on the Incredible Hulk, and was only trying to help that USC student write an oncology term paper. Seriously, read it for yourself.

Greene's comic book is certainly as absurd as his bid for Senate, but Greene's campaign is no more ridiculous than other "joke" candidates such as Jimmy McMillan of the Rent is 2 Damn High Party or Tennessee's Basil Marceaux. Like Marceaux, there are indications that Greene may suffer some type of mental illness. The difference is that Greene was actually nominated by a major party, through a combination of colossal failures by the state Democratic Party as well as Greene's opponent in the primary, Charleston City Councilman Vic Rawl.

Rawl, known in some circles as "the most hated judge in the Lowcountry," spent almost no money on his primary campaign. He rarely made public appearances other than to throw the opening pitch at a minor league baseball game, instead relying on emails and robocalls to get his name out. The Rawl campaign simply assumed there was no challenge at the primary level, and naturally focused on what would certainly be a tough battle against the popular and well-funded DeMint. As a result, many Democratic voters stepped into the voting booth either never having heard of either candidate, or disliking the only candidate they recognized.

Beyond that, there are a lot of questions. Did the state Democratic Party even tell the Rawl campaign about his challenger? State Democratic Party Chair Carol Fowler said she had never met Greene and never saw him after he filed his candidacy, so it's clear the party didn't do much research on Greene to help their preferred candidate. Rawl himself admitted that he never so much as googled Alvin Greene before the election.

Surely Greene's victory wasn't the result of campaigning, because Greene didn't do any. So did Rawl lose because of his own arrogance, the state party's negligence, or perhaps an issue with the state's notoriously suspect voting machines? There's a good chance that question can never be definitively answered, but we do know a few things about the 2010 primary and its repercussions.

It is a testament to how many South Carolina citizens genuinely abhor Jim DeMint that Greene got even the 28% of the vote that he did. Unfortunately, that showing only reinforces the notion that a serious candidate more adept at campaigning than Rawl or Greene (which wouldn't take much) could have had an actual shot at taking down DeMint.

That's not saying a different challenger would definitely have beaten one of the GOP's most prominent rising stars, but it would have forced DeMint to spend actual money on his reelection. Instead, DeMint was able to funnel his already-large war chest into the campaigns of chosen tea party disciples across the country, creating a cadre of conservative freshman eager to make their mark on a Congress and White House already weakened by a constant media narrative of right-wing resurgence. At the very least, a decent challenger could have prevented DeMint from becoming some sort of Tea Party Caesar.

After an election in which Republicans swept every statewide office, crushed a powerful 28-year veteran of the U.S. House and won a supermajority in the state legislature, many South Carolina Democrats will undoubtedly be looking for explanations for such a colossal failure. They need only look in the mirror, as well as to their state party leadership -- such as it is.

Mark Sanford's first term as governor was marked by deep conflict with many in the State House, and his 2006 reelection campaign would have been an excellent chance to wrestle the governor's office back from the Republicans. Instead, however, the state Democratic Party nominated a payday lending stooge who, after being trounced by Sanford on election day, quit the legislature to become a lobbyist.

However, the ineptitude shown by the state Democratic Party in 2006 was greatly outstripped by the farcical campaigns this year. Rep. Joe Wilson should have been a relatively easy target after his "you lie" outburst, but perennial challenger Rob Miller was nowhere to be seen for weeks after Wilson's meltdown. He even refused to comment on the outburst, and it appears the "you lie" fiasco never even came up in the 2010 campaign.

This year's race for governor was also well in reach for Democrats, who once again squandered the opportunity. The Republican candidate, a Sikh-raised accountant who can't pay her taxes on time, faces multiple semi-credible accusations of infidelity -- the same thing that got her predecessor/mentor into trouble last year in Argentina.

Still, the state party apparently believed they needed no financial or organizational help from the Democratic Governors Association, even as national Republican cash poured into the Haley campaign coffers and anti-Sheheen ads plastered the airwaves. When former state Democratic leader Dick Harpootlian complained about the lack of national support, Fowler smugly quipped, "Dick Harpootlian loves to be on TV, but he doesn't speak for the South Carolina Democratic Party. He doesn't speak for South Carolina Democrats."

But as Tuesday's election results rolled in, it was clear that the Sheheen-Haley race was far closer than many had imagined. The widely held notion that a little extra national cash could have swung the election toward Sheheen prompted Politico's Jonathan Martin to note, "Dick Harpootlian is looking pretty damn smart tonight." In retrospect, perhaps Harpootlian should speak for South Carolina Democrats.

Fowler has already announced her retirement as party chair next year, though she says it has nothing to do with Alvin Greene. It's clear after this election, however, that the Greene debacle is only one of a number of serious issues plaguing the South Carolina Democratic Party and its leaders. State Democrats are arguably in their worst position in decades, and must reorganize and reexamine themselves if the party is to survive in a tea party-dominated government like the one they allowed to be elected on Tuesday.


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