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Will Folks is president of Viewpolitik, LLC, a political consulting firm based in Columbia, South Carolina. He is also the founding editor of FITSNews.com, a widely-read political blog. Folks previously served for four years as spokesman to Governor Mark Sanford. I met Folks over the summer while reporting a story (which appears in the November issue of the magazine) on Mitt Romney’s campaign in South Carolina and his local consultants there. We recently spoke by phone about the GOP presidential race, state politics, and the prominent role in South Carolina of the leading political consultants: Warren Tompkins (now working for Romney), Richard Quinn Sr. (working for John McCain) and Rod Shealy.
1. South Carolina has had a reputation for dirty politics for a long time. Is that reputation justified?
Things are probably a lot worse than most people think. You have political consultants who know only one way to play the game, and that’s to take the other guy’s head off. It’s sworn enemy versus sworn enemy. We are almost eight years removed from the Bush-McCain primary fight in 2000 and yet there are relationships that remain broken from that fight. Bush-McCain exposed at a national level the way campaigns have always been run here. The problem is that any time you have a largely uninformed and uneducated electorate, that kind of lowest common denominator mudslinging can be effective. But I do think that 2000 was the high-water mark for that type of campaign. South Carolinians, bless our hearts, may not be the brightest bunch right off the bat but it’s tough to fool us twice. Even a lot of people who voted for Bush in 2000 were turned off by the right-wing scare tactics. But local races down here are still very dirty. I’ve learned that if you don’t take the bait, negative campaigning usually backfires. But things do get messy because nine out of ten times mud is met by more mud.
2. How did political consultants become so prominent in South Carolina?
It’s a personality-driven business and you have some incredibly colorful personalities, whether you’re talking about the three major players–Quinn, Tompkins, and Shealy–or some of the younger up-and-comers. Certainly Shealy thrives on his reputation as a troublemaker, dirty trickster, and political prankster. Another reason is the generally poor quality of candidates that run for office in the state. When you have intellectually incurious candidates, you end up with races dominated by consultants. Once they get these candidates elected, the consultants can then get them to endorse whoever they want in statewide and national races. It’s no shock that [attorney general] Henry McMaster endorsed John McCain, because they both use Quinn as their consultant. That’s the way it works here. The flip side is that the consultants wouldn’t be where they are if they weren’t good.
3. How much influence do consultants have after the election, in terms of impacting public policy?
A lot, probably too much. You end up with institutional networks in which public officials are an extension of their consultants and do the bidding of their consultants. That gets ethically tricky when consultants also have lobbying firms and represent corporate clients and special interests. You see that most directly with Tompkins. He is a lobbyist and a consultant, so clients may hire him because they think he has elected officials in his back pocket. Also, Tompkins at one point was simultaneously working as the consultant for [former] Governor David Beasley and the lobbyist for the video poker industry, whose singular objective was to remove Beasley from office by opposing his re-election bid. The video poker industry was Beasley’s No. 1 sworn enemy–and to me, that’s just not an ethical mode of operation because you couldn’t help one client without hurting the other. Tompkins ended up helping the video poker forces at the expense of his gubernatorial candidate. Of course, all of the top consultants have been involved in some sort of controversy; none of them is even remotely clean.
4. The conventional wisdom is that right-wing Christian conservatives dominate South Carolina politics. You suggest that image is somewhat out of date. Why?
In part because there are shifting demographics in terms of folks moving to South Carolina, particularly along the coast, from northern states and other parts of the country. But I also think there’s a shift in focus by the voters here at home. People are increasingly worried about their bottom line and a little less worried about things like stem cell research. Where a candidate stands on stem cell research isn’t going to bring a single job to South Carolina. The heightened focus on pocketbook issues isn’t surprising in a state that ranks so poorly in terms of individual income and employment. We’re one of the poorest states in the country and by and large recent economic expansions have passed us by. People are starting to think, we’ve been eating this conservative red meat for years but what has it done for our family budget? In 2002, Mark Sanford won the Republican primary for governor against a heavily favored social conservative running exclusively on family values issues. Here’s this quirky professor-type from the coast who was talking about tax rates, business reforms, and economic development. Did he pay lip service to right-wing hot-button issues like abortion and gay marriage? Absolutely, but he didn’t make those the focus of his race, and in the process he reached a huge swath of Republican primary voters who were tired of being pandered to on social issues.
5. A lot of top South Carolina Republicans are former Democrats who switched parties as the GOP came to dominate state politics. Do party labels mean anything in South Carolina?
South Carolina has a reputation as being one of the reddest states in the country, yet Republicans here have raised government spending at a rate that would make Democrats in Washington blush. Spending has risen by 41 percent over the past three years, which is the biggest expansion of state government in our history, and the Republicans are the ones driving the spending. We have what is effectively the highest income tax in the southeast and the worst education system in the country, not to mention a state constitution that has basically not been reformed since 1895. You put all that together and the result is that we rank last in just about everything good and first in just about everything bad. If we’re the party of lower taxes and less spending someone forgot to tell that to the South Carolina Republican Party.
6. How important is South Carolina as a primary state and who are the likely winners here when the vote is held next year?
If you’re a Republican and don’t do well here, it’s a sign that your drawing power may be limited in a region that represents the modern day nucleus of your party’s electoral advantage. It stands to reason that if your message doesn’t t resonate with voters here, it also won’t resonate in North Carolina, Kentucky, Alabama and the rest of the southern states. No Republican has ever won the nomination without winning the South Carolina primary–so it’s just as important as New Hampshire and Iowa. As for who will win, a lot could change but if I had to put money down on it right now I’d bet on Fred Thompson and Hillary Clinton. But Giuliani is running stronger here than expected and he’s within striking distance, which must be driving McCain and Romney bonkers, because they were banking on Giuliani not being viable. People may say they’ll vote on social issues, but when the curtain actually closes I think they are more motivated by the candidates’ stances on bread-and-butter economic issues. Even immigration may not be as potent an issue as it seems. This is a state where 15 percent of the economy is tied to tourism revenue and another huge chunk is tied to agriculture. Those are frankly jobs that a lot of South Carolinians don’t want to do, and if illegal immigrants weren’t filling them, two sectors of our state economy would shut down.
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