Despite obstacles Tom Clements gains votes in South Carolina
by Scott West, South Carolina Green Party
Tom Clements’ campaign for U.S. Senate was the most successful independent progressive race in South Carolina history. With more than 118,000 votes and 9.22% of the overall total, Clements far exceeded any previous statewide candidate running without support of either of the two major parties.
We established a platform that reflects what a lot of South Carolinians want: affordable, universal healthcare; cuts to defense spending and an end to the foreign wars; a tolerant society; and the priorities of small business, not massive corporations.
According to Ballot Access News, the Clements campaign is one of the two most successful minor party campaigns for senate in the last 80 years. The Arkansas Green Party candidate, Rebekah Kenedy, exceeded Clements’ vote total in 2008, but that was a two-person race. The success of the Clements campaign was helped by the Democratic Party’s lackluster campaign.
Clements is an experienced campaigner, who was motivated to take on the incumbent. His organizing as an activist, with more than a decade of experience in the state, obviously served him well. Identified with a national party, the South Carolina Green Party was a ready-made vehicle for the campaign with a ballot line and an active presence in Columbia, Charleston, and Aiken.
The incumbent Jim DeMint is infamous as a lowest-common denominator politician – animated by an exclusionary religion and informed by his marketing background. Although the national media did not portray it, the incumbent Senator is highly controversial within the state.
In some ways Clements was the anti-DeMint. Recruited for the campaign by a South Carolina Green Party (SCGP) steering committee member in 2009, he wanted to run against DeMint to call the incumbent to account for his defense spending and his aversion to social investment. Clements has worked for more than thirteen years for Greenpeace and is now with Friends of the Earth as a nuclear policy specialist.
The Clements campaign began running hard in June. Well-known Columbia journalist, Kevin Alexander Gray, joined as media coordinator. Other activists from Columbia participated in the campaign by: writing, contributing cash, and lending web skills. Campaign manager Frances Close arranged for speaking engagements at a variety of events and meetings state-wide, including NAACP forums, university classes, stump events and community meetings, and a host of formal Democratic gatherings.
Although the campaign was well underway by the time of the Democratic primary, the selection of the unknown Alvin Greene gave a boost to the campaign, definitely raising interest and activity in the Green Party. Greene’s complete inability to justify his candidacy in public appearances, much less through a coherent program, was undoubtedly a boon. Possibly the presence of Greene on the ballot may have doubled the vote total for Clements.
Many of the core campaign activists, through working on progressive issues in South Carolina, had a long history with the Democratic Party. With the unsuitability of the Democratic nominee, some hope the SC Democratic Party would swing behind Clements, at least on the county level. It wasn’t to be. In mid-summer, the SC Democratic Party leadership would occasionally issue statements Greene should drop out, but when Greene was certified as the official candidate on August 15, even these comments stopped. The SC Democratic Party officially ignored the Senate race and Jim DeMint for the rest of the campaign.
“When it became apparent during the summer that the Democratic Party organization would not go to work against DeMint, we decided to run the campaign as all-volunteer.” says Clements, “Had we gone into debt hiring professional staff at that point, I’m not sure the result would have been much different.”
Still, Clements was the more credible opponent to DeMint. Not only independents, but also individual Democrats, supported Clements, including some fairly prominent members of the party establishment. Former governor Jim Hodges sponsored a fundraiser for Clements. Dick Hartpoolian, the former Democratic state party chair, donated $1000 to the campaign. But there was no organizational support or even tacit endorsement by county organizations.
While the campaign was successful in reaching out to Democratic voters in the cities, it did not have the time or resources to make similar connections in the rural counties. The results of 18% percent in Richland and Lexington counties, around Columbia, were about twice the state average and the source of many of the total votes. By comparison, the campaign’s voting strength was weakest in the rural counties with a majority of African-American voters, where its share went as low as 4%.
Several write-in candidates appeared to take advantage of the apparent vacuum in the rest of the state. Two, Mazie Furgeuson and Nathalie Dupree, received some media coverage and Dupree actually raised $16,000 – a lot less than Clements, but a lot more than Greene. Dupree got media attention because she was already a television chef, well known in Charleston. She actually entered the campaign after DeMint blocked a federal study on dredging Charleston harbor. Although she only received around 10,000 votes, the appearance of a “Charleston candidate” can be seen as a result of the Green Party’s weakness going into the campaign.
The inadequacy of the Democratic candidate was both a help and a hindrance to the campaign: a help, because voters, who would not have considered Tom Clements before, sought him out as an alternative; a hinderance because the incumbent felt free to ignore the campaign almost entirely. There were no televised debates or roundtables with editorial boards. DeMint was free to raise money to use around the nation for the worst candidates for Senate seen in a generation.
Regional media showed greater interest in Clements once the Greene story was repeated. Even the basic Clements campaign appeared increasingly credible in contrast. As a result it began to raise some cash and generate some buzz around the state.
Clements and campaign manager Frances Close worked tirelessly to mount a statewide presence for the campaign through personal appearances and interviews. South Carolina offers plenty of opportunities for stump speeches or candidate forums, usually sponsored by a local Chamber of Commerce, the League of Women Voters or the NAACP. Clements was always amazed at the positive reception he received from individuals around the state. People seemed genuinely interested in the platform and in hearing new approaches to old problems.
If the public proved more welcoming than expected, the media proved a tougher row to hoe. Clements met with the editorial board of the Rock Hill Herald and the Spartanburg Herald-Journal and more than once with reporters from The Myrtle Beach Sun-Times, the Post & Courier, the Aiken Standard, the Sumter Item and other daily papers. In discussions with them, most papers indicated that they would not make an endorsement this election, one way or the other. With DeMint almost entirely absent and the Democrat a walking disaster, most local journalists had little interest in the race, but eventually gave it some coverage since it was the state’s U.S. Senate race. Nevertheless, the Rock Hill Herald endorsed Clements for Senate on October 30, surely the first time a daily paper has endorsed a Green Party nominee in the South.
National media never adapted to the dynamics of this race. Some thought to be halfway sympathetic, like The Daily Show, the Colbert Report, Huffington Post and even The Progressive fell back on a DeMint/Greene contest. Despite glancing acknowledgment from a few individual reporters, no national news outlet consistently mentioned Tom Clements in reports on the race until the final tally was reported.
Polling firms were similarly blinkered. GOP-leaning Rasmussen Reports was the only polling firm that regularly covered the Clements race and seemed to favor a lopsided return for the incumbent. The Winthrop University poll, which did include Clements’ name, showed him at 12%. The result was encouraging, but coming in mid-October, was too late to attract much media coverage. Due to the prominence given to polling in decisions regarding news coverage, the exclusion of Clements from polling perpetuated the perception that it was a two-person race between a Democrat and a Republican. When the existence of other candidates aren’t acknowledged, as in this contest, the opportunity to express viewpoints in policy, other than those of the major parties, is lost.
The campaign realized from the reports of early voters that straight ticket voting was really going to hurt the campaign. “I have spoken with several people who told me they supported me and then one minute later would say they already voted straight Democrat,” related Clements. Habits are so ingrained, people think if they like a candidate, then the candidate must be in their party. They simply are not in the habit of considering all the candidates for every office before voting. As Green candidates Hugh Gordanio in Philadelphia and Ben Manski in Madison learned, a straight-ticket vote frees the voter from making a considered choice for every office. A preliminary analysis of the statewide vote shows that 85% of the votes, cast for the Democrat in the Senate race, were straight ticket votes. Elimination of the straight ticket would most likely have put Clements in second place in Lexington and Richland counties.
“We established a platform that reflects what a lot of South Carolinians want: affordable, universal healthcare; cuts to defense spending and an end to the foreign wars; a tolerant society; and the priorities of small business, not massive corporations.” Clements said, “People want a government that sets education, social security and protecting the environment as its priorities.”
It was a remarkable accomplishment that the Clements for Senate campaign reached November 2 with no debt, having raised and spent $50,000 on outreach, advertising and candidate travel. Those involved in the Clements’ campaign are moving on with a DeMint Watch organization – operating a website and conducting research into DeMint’s activities. DeMint definitely figures to be a factor in future elections. The only way to stop the corporate takeover of politics in South Carolina is for a real organization to disrupt DeMint’s control. It needs to be non-partisan and it started with the Clements 2010 campaign.
The South Carolina Green Party has benefited from the campaign with a heightened profile, new chapters in a handful of counties, and new membership and activists. Greens have a base from which to start working against the coming austerity budgets with likeminded people. There is a long way to go, but we are better situated to fight back than we were before.