The South Carolina Democratic problem

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Seppuku, or hara-kiri, was a form of ritual suicide practiced by the samurai in feudal Japan.  Part of the bushido honor code, seppuku was used by warriors who were accused of disloyalty.  The ceremonial disembowelment was part of an elaborate ritual and performed in front of spectators as recently as 1873, when it was officially abolished.

In South Carolina, the Democratic Party committed political hara-kiri by turning its back on Alvin Greene, the duly-elected Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate race.  In their haste to distance themselves from Mr. Greene, the party showed disloyalty and created a domino effect that helped the Tea Party win key races in several other states.

How do we know this?  Jim DeMint told us himself.

We caught up with Senator DeMint the day before the election after a taping of the Keven Cohen radio show at WVOC in Columbia.  We asked DeMint point blank why he never acknowledged Mr. Greene as an opponent.

The senator replied, “My real opponents are in Washington; they’re in the Congress and the White House.  That’s where my real fight is.  Frankly, the state Democratic Party has not recognized Alvin Greene as their candidate, and they have not supported him, so given that, I thought it was the better part of wisdom to just not to say anything about him.  I appreciate anyone who’s willing to run for public office, so in that sense, I appreciate him.”

Fair enough.  Why should Senator DeMint have paid any attention to Mr. Greene if his own party rejected him?

When House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn said that Alvin’s win reeked of  “elephant dung” the day after the primary, the stage was set for Mr. Greene to be thrown under the campaign bus.  With Vic Rawl’s voting machine challenge and the stream of state Democratic leaders urging Greene to drop out of the race, Senator DeMint was free to use his $5 million war chest to support 11 Tea Party candidates in other states.  Those other candidates included eventual winners Mike Lee in Utah, Marco Rubio in Florida, Rand Paul in Kentucky, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania and Ron Johnson in Wisconsin.

Of course, there was never any chance that Alvin Greene would beat Jim DeMint.  But did the Dems have to deliver him on a silver platter?

The South Carolina Democratic Party gave Senator DeMint a free pass from Day One when it could have forced him to stay in the state and campaign.  Inexplicably, members of the party used valuable resources to fight Mr. Greene’s candidacy, eliminate his name from party literature and actively prevent him from participating in campaign events.

Mr. Greene was not even invited to the party’s official election night “celebration,” which is ironic, because Alvin won as big a percentage of the vote (28%) as losing House candidates Ben Frasier (29%) and Paul Corden (29%), both of whom received the full support of the statewide Democratic machine.

In fact, Alvin Greene received more votes (358,069) than Sharron Angle (320,996), Blanche Lincoln (280,167), Senator Daniel Inouye (276,867), Senator-elect Chris Coons (173,900) and Senator Lisa Murkowski (total write-ins: 81,876), according to an analysis by Wonkette.com on the day after the election.

Pretty good for a guy who spent about $1,000 on his campaign and received virtually no acknowledgement that he was the first African American to be nominated for U.S. Senate by a major party in South Carolina’s history.

How much did the South Carolina Democratic Party spend to get Frasier and Corden that extra 1% of the vote?  It’s nothing compared to the amount of bad press they got by bad-mouthing their own candidate.

Sure, Alvin made his share of embarrassing gaffes, but so did many upstart Tea Party-backed candidates.  The difference is that the Tea Party stood by their candidates, but the South Carolina Democratic Party did not stand by Mr. Greene.  Americans value loyalty, and they frown upon elitism.

Alvin wasn’t brilliant or articulate, but he won the nomination fair and square.  Rather than acknowledge his accomplishment, the party did everything they could to undo it.  Maybe his gaffes would have been curtailed had he been brought into the fold, rather than isolated in a way that made him an easy target for opportunistic media.

We’ve been following Alvin for the last five months while shooting a documentary, and we saw him press on despite humiliating in-person rejections by the party.  At one point, Alvin placed a “Greene for Senate” sign at the Democratic booth at the state fair only to have it taken down when he walked away. In Alvin’s hometown of Manning, the Democratic headquarters did not even put up one of his campaign posters.  Taking a cue from the statewide party, some local Democratic organizations began to unofficially back Green Party nominee Tom Clements, despite rules against endorsing outside candidates.

The party leadership was very gracious in granting us interviews and access during our shooting.  They are smart, passionate people, but at the same time, they presented a wildly inconsistent message to voters: we encourage you to vote a straight Democratic ticket, even though we do not personally support Mr. Greene.

California Democrats supported a recently-deceased candidate who ended up winning a State Senate seat, but South Carolina Dems couldn’t back a live candidate who desperately needed their help.  In a strange twist, it was conservative talk radio hosts like Keven Cohen and Keith Larson (WBT 1110 am Charlotte) who gave Alvin a venue to present his campaign platform when the party wouldn’t.

Despite his awkward appearance on MSNBC’s “The Last Word” in which he answered virtually every question with “DeMint started the recession,” Alvin received Lawrence O’Donnell’s seal of approval: “I don’t think Jim DeMint personally started the recession, but I do think Alvin Greene — still better than Jim DeMint.”  That was a more enthusiastic endorsement than Greene’s own party gave him, and a catchy one: Alvin Greene — still better than Jim DeMint.

Spanish poet Unamuno said of Catholic marriage, “If your wife has a pain in her left leg, you shall feel that same pain in your left leg.”  Alvin Greene lost, but the Democratic Party of South Carolina feels his pain.  Not just because most of their candidates also lost, but because the party contributed to the “shellacking” that Dems took around the country by trying to avoid its own “embarrassing” candidate.

The real winner?  Alvin Greene.  While the butt of many jokes, he went after his American dream when many others never do.  Alvin Greene is a candidate who never quit even when his own party turned against him.

Leslie Beaumont is a documentary filmmaker whose credits include the African adventure “Glory Bound” and “The Sumba Project,” which provides a rare glimpse into one of the world’s oldest and intact animist cultures. David Garrett is a Razzie-nominated writer/director who has written feature film scripts for Disney, Paramount, Universal, Dreamworks and MTV.