My piece in the November issue of Harper’s, already on newsstands, takes a look at the Republican presidential race in South Carolina, focusing on the role of Mitt Romney’s handlers in the state. There’s no state where political consultants are more prominent than South Carolina. The two best-known figures currently are Richard Quinn Sr., who is running John McCain’s campaign, and Warren Tompkins, who worked for George W. Bush’s famously dirty South Carolina campaign in 2000 and who is now working for Mitt Romney.
Rod Shealy is less well known but many South Carolina insiders deem him to be the smartest and shrewdest of all. Shealy–who like Tompkins once worked with Lee Atwater, a native South Carolinian — has a record of riding dark horses to victory. In 2004, he scored a huge upset when his candidate for the statehouse, Nathan Ballentine, knocked off House Majority Leader Richard Quinn Jr. In 2006, Shealy ran the Republican primary campaign of Andre Bauer for lieutenant governor. Bauer was given virtually no chance of winning– especially after a traffic stop during the campaign when he was clocked going 110 miles per hour–but prevailed in a runoff election against the son of Carroll Campbell, a revered former governor. “Shealy is diabolically clever and a master of dirty tricks, but very effective,” Will Folks, a political consultant and blogger who has worked with and against Shealy, told me.
Shealy gained a bit of national notoriety in 1990, when he was running the campaign of his sister, Sherry Martschink, a candidate for Lieutenant Governor. Shealy was looking to increase the turnout of racially conservative low-country voters, a group largely sympathetic to Martschink, in the overall Republican primary. To do so, he recruited Benjamin Hunt, Jr., an unemployed black fisherman, to run for congress in the Republican primary against incumbent Arthur Ravenel, Jr., even paying Hunt’s filing fee. When the ploy was revealed, Shealy was convicted and fined for violating campaign laws.
Yet Shealy has worked for numerous African-American political candidates, far more than the other top consultants in the state. Indeed, he told me that in 1954, his father, Ryan Shealy, then a state representative, became one of the first southern politicians to denounce the Ku Klux Klan. In the early 1970s, his sister served in the statehouse and was the only Republican to join with eleven members of the Black Caucus (and one white Democrat) to oppose capital punishment on the grounds that it was racially discriminatory.
One day last June I met Shealy for breakfast at a diner in Columbia, the state capital, called Lizard’s Thicket. A big man with a bushy beard and rugged face softened by baby blue eyes, he wore jeans and a trademark Hawaiian shirt. “This man needs a greasy breakfast,” Shealy told the waitress, a middle-aged woman quite a bit bigger than he.
“We got it,” she replied, and took down his order of bacon, eggs and cheddar cheese, toast, grits and coffee.
Funny, engaging, and frank, Shealy is impossible not to like. As we waited for our food, I asked him where he was from originally. That was an opening for him to play the southern bumpkin, a routine that isn’t entirely a put-on but clearly isn’t wholly genuine either. “I grew up in the area and have lived here all my life,” he replied in a thick drawl. “When I tell people that, they say, ‘Why that’s impossible, you’re so suave and urbane’.”
Shealy and his associates hold court at Lizard’s Thicket every morning and a steady stream of friends and political cronies dropped by our booth to exchange pleasantries. In between visits, Shealy told me about his history as a consultant, including the incident with Hunt Jr. (which he described as “a campaign violation for failing to disclose a candidate I dreamed up”). Following his conviction he dropped out of the consulting business for a few years and focused on developing a chain of small newspapers. “I came back in 1994, when a newspaper competitor ran for state treasurer,” he told me. “I didn’t want him to win so I got someone to run and elected him. The guy was a political novice so I ended up taking a job in the treasurer’s office to help out.”
Shealy had not signed up with a presidential candidate, but he’s had discussions with a few campaigns, including Rudy Giuliani’s, whose people he met with in New York, and Fred Thompson’s. Like most political consultants, Shealy has a fairly jaded and utilitarian view of politics and campaign strategy. When I asked him how Romney’s consultants would brand their candidate in South Carolina, he said, “Tompkins’ strategy will be simple. He’ll go hard to the right on every issue. Immigration is a red-meat issue right now and [Romney has] already switched positions to get to there. To get our base for the primary and mobilize it for November you don’t have to have credibility, you just have to say the right things and have the right spin. Romney is an unknown. When you have $100 million to spend, you can be who you want to be.”
Will Folks had proposed a theory to me that I ran by Shealy. The former’s view is that South Carolina isn’t nearly as conservative as it once was, partly because of a large number of people, including many Northeasterners, moving to Charleston and elsewhere along the coast. As a result, Folks believed that running hard right in the state, especially on issues like abortion and gay marriage, two South Carolina standbys, is longer a sure path to success. “What was once the bedrock of the party is gradually becoming a fringe group,” he said. “The smart strategy is to pay lip service to social issues, but to focus on pocket book issues that appeal to fiscal conservatives.”
Shealy didn’t entirely buy that argument. “It’s true, our entire coast is filled with people who sound more like you than they do like me,” he said. “But it will be a long time before it’s a bad strategy to run to the right in South Carolina. You can combine that with other strategies, but working the social issues is still important.”
I met with Shealy again during a second trip to South Carolina in July, having lunch with him at an old-fashioned soda shop called Gatsbees World Fair, his latest business venture. Shealey was still a free agent and complained that consulting on a presidential campaign was a money-losing proposition. “Having said that, I’m still likely to get engaged,” he told me. I’m a political hack — how do you skip a presidential campaign? I could even work with Tompkins [for Romney] or Quinn [for McCain]. The latter would be harder because I put his kid on the street but it’s politics, the relationship could get good real quick. And McCain is a vintage Rod Shealy candidate — he’s got no expectation of winning and no money.”