The other candidates: A guide to the South Carolina special election Republican primary

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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“You are my first telephone interview of this whole process,” one would-be next congressman of South Carolina’s First District told me a few weeks ago.

It was a surprising statement at first. The race to fill now-Sen. Tim Scott’s congressional seat in South Carolina’s first district has hardly been low profile.

But that attention has been largely devoted to one Republican contender: former governor Mark Sanford, making his return to politics in the wake of the scandal at the end of his gubernatorial term. The storyline has proven too good to resist – numerous national media outlets have written about the special election, and Sanford even appeared on the “Today Show” several weeks ago to discuss his run.

That high name recognition and the financial advantages that it affords him are expected to propel him into one of the top two spots in the sixteen-person Republican primary, securing him a slot in the expected run-off, which will occur if no one candidate wins a majority of the vote.

But there are 15 Republicans vying with Sanford for the nomination, all less well-known than he is, and each trying to carve out a unique path into the voters’ hearts and onto their ballots in the overcrowded primary. The Daily Caller spoke to 14 of them, as well as Sanford. Only one, Curtis Bostic, did not respond to TheDC’s interview requests.

Most of the other candidates are quick to tell you that the former governor’s notoriety is anything but a good thing.

“Well, I mean he certainly has the most name recognition, for good or for bad,” candidate Teddy Turner told TheDC. “You know there’s a lot of people right now who have name recognition, Lance Armstrong, you know, [Manti] Te’o.”

Turner himself has been subject of a fair amount of attention: As the son of Ted Turner, the liberal CNN founder and one-time husband of Jane Fonda, Teddy Turner’s appearance in a Republican primary has made some waves.

“Being a Turner, it’s a wonderful thing,” he says. “But also sometimes it works against you.”

“There’s preconceived notions. So people think that they know something about me when they don’t,” Turner says of his lineage. “They think that, ‘Oh, he was born with a silver spoon, oh he’s never had a real job, oh he’s never done anything. What’s he done besides ride his father’s coattails?’ And that really couldn’t be further from the truth. So it’s a tough position to be in because if you were John Smith and running in this race, nobody would have preconceived notions about you. They would talk to you about policies, they would talk to you about issues, they wouldn’t say, ‘Well, I can’t vote for you because Jane Fonda was your stepmother.’ So it makes it, you know, it’s difficult to get a fair shake.”

The high school economics teacher is pitching himself as the absolute opposite of a career politician, someone who will skip the political “double talk” of telling people what they want to hear, and “get people to understand, that although eating ice cream is good, eating spinach is better.”

Sanford’s notoriety, Turner’s famous name, not to mention likely Democratic nominee Elizabeth Colbert-Busch, brother of comedian Stephen Colbert, has turned the race into what Jonathan Hoffman, one of the fourteen other Republican candidates, deemed a “celebrity circus.”

“That’s disappointing for a lot of people here … because the race is not getting the thorough vetting that it should,” he told TheDC.

“A lot of voters are just incredibly frustrated by the media coverage, that literally all media coverage has been about Gov. Sanford’s affair, Teddy Turner’s father, or Elizabeth Colbert’s brother,” he added. “Not a single one of those things is going to make life better for Republicans in this district. Not a single thing in that is going to make life better for the voters of South Carolina.”

Hoffman is touting himself as “the only non-career politician in the field that has experience,” having worked for the Department of Homeland Security.

There are a number of “non-career politicians” in this race – in fact, almost every candidate portrays themselves that way, including Sanford, who most other candidates seem to feel personifies the term.

But Hoffman says his time in Washington, D.C. means he understands the system and will “be able to get to work on day one.”

The same, of course, could be said of Sanford, but Hoffman is confident.

“I’ll put my record of success up against his in Washington any day,” he says.

“I can see that some of the other candidates are starting to get a little offended by the amount of media attention that they are receiving,” said Jeffrey King, another candidate in the race. “‘Cause you know, they’re competing for those same votes that — Mark Sanford was on the ‘Today Show’ this morning, so you know, not everybody has those opportunities.”

King is a systems engineer who has worked out at the same gym as Tim Scott for “the past seven years or so” and wants him to be replaced with someone who really represents the community in the way he feels Scott did.

“I’d always see him at the gym, I’d see him at church, I’d see him at the grocery store, like, it always felt like we had, he was like our guy … He had a very down-home feel to him,” King explained. “And then when they started talking about some of the possible candidates to take his place, it was all based off of like the finances of different politicians and the name recognition of, you know, possible replacements. And it was, you know, your mainstream Mark Sanfords, Teddy Turner – it really wasn’t about the people of the community anymore, it was kind of this, you know, politics as usual.”

King sees himself as filling that void and “representing the working middle class.”

One of the less well-funded candidates – according to his last Federal Election Commission filing, his campaign has spent just under $5,000 since January and has $37 cash on hand – he is employing a unique campaign strategy.

“You know, we see signs from all other candidates all over the place, and so one of my things was I told my supporters that anytime you see a sign on the road for another candidate, just close your eyes and imagine it’s a picture of my face on it. It’s a mental marketing strategy that I’m trying out,” he said, laughing.

If you’re still reading this piece, the difficulties faced by a candidate running in a field of 16 should be evident by now. It takes a lot of time and many words to let each candidate explain who he or she is and what he or she is about; even more to let them appear as more than caricatures. Reporters don’t have the space, and the average attendee of a campaign event doesn’t have the time or the patience.

“We’re all going to the same event. But the problem is, if it’s 16 candidates in the field, if you just gave each one of us five minutes, that’s an hour and a half,” noted one candidate, Ray Nash, who pointed out that was not even counting the time it took candidates to get on and off the stage.

“It’s really difficult to drill down into some of these issues” in that context, Nash said, which presents something a problem for someone trying to differentiate himself or herself from the pack.

“We agree on the surfaces … but the differences are going to be found when we drill down deeper into our values,” he said.

Nash is a former sheriff. He spent the past three years in Afghanistan working for the Department of State, and made the decision to return to the U.S. when the opening of the congressional seat coincided with the end of his obligation to the State Department.

“I’ve been over there for the past three years as part of our government reform effort … and as I’m watching some of the stuff going on back home … I realized that our own government’s in the greatest need of reform,” he said.

So he came back to try to try to “shake things up,” which is what he says sheriffs tend to do.

“We’re accustomed to taking constitutional stands on a variety of issues … to interposing ourselves between our citizens and criminals and bullies … That’s what sheriffs do,” Nash said. “We make stands like that. It’s part of our DNA.”

Ric Bryant, another candidate, said he has also been struggling with this overcrowding.

“I’ve never been involved in anything like that before,” said the engineer making his first run for political office.

“There’s so many of us candidates in there it’s kind of made us sort of difficult to really talk about things, I guess. Cause you only get a few minutes every time.”

Bryant is an engineer, meaning his job, as he explains it, is “to help people with their problems,” and he would like to take that attitude to Congress.

“The political part of it is something that I really don’t want — don’t find productive, don’t find helpful for any of this,” he explained. “I’m running, I’m a conservative because that’s my belief, but like I said, I mean, I know that most of the people we pretty much share most of the same ideas … our values … we share most of them, and that’s the area to focus in on, not political differences … that’s the way you approach it. And I wish we all did, actually.”

“There’s plenty of common ground for us to start making changes,” he says of Congress.

“Circus is the right word,” affirms Tim Larkin, a cyber security engineer who is also making his first run for office, when asked about the race.

“It’s crazy. Having 16 just on the GOP ticket is wild,” he says, attesting to the minimal amount of talking time at candidate events.

“The onus really is on the voter this time to do the research and find out who are the good guys here that really care, and who are the dirt bags that are just trying to get to the next rung or make a name for themselves,” he says.

Larkin says he would want to “emulate” Tim Scott as a congressman, “the way that he stayed grounded and stayed in touch with the people that he represented, and he stood up for us,” and that he would want to go to Washington to do what needs to be done, and then leave.

“I don’t have any aspiration to remain in politics. So I’m willing to go to D.C. and to work here in our district and do whatever needs to be done for all the people in this district and not care about who I offend, politically speaking,” he said.

Indeed, Larkin says his run was born of his displeasure at seeing all the “usual suspects” lining up to run for Scott’s seat, people whom he “was not happy with or would not feel proud of if they were my representative,” and he takes frequent swipes at those people, with a particular focus on Sanford.

“I think it’s embarrassing for him and for us,” Larkin said about Sanford’s run.

“Can we forgive him? Sure. Let God forgive him, I’m all for that. Should we re-elect him and reward the way that he shamed our state? No. I don’t think so,” Larkin said.

Few of the other candidates hesitate to go after Sanford when asked what they think about his candidacy. For the most part, those attacks focus not on the affair itself, but the behavior that surrounded it – his seven-day disappearance.

“When you abandon your post,” Turner said, “you know, I think of the Italian ship captain who ran the ship aground and then was the first guy off the ship. You know, that’s not leadership.”

Shawn Pinkston, another candidate, called it being “derelict of your duty,” and noted that as a former Army JAG officer, “I’ve prosecuted soldiers who abandoned their posts” like Sanford did.

Pinkston, by contrast, emphasized his history of putting his country before his personal desires.

“I deployed when my son was six months old and on a feeding tube in order to serve my country and to do my duty,” Pinkston said. “I know what it’s like to have to put service to our country before myself,” he added, with the implication being that Sanford does not.

Rep. Chip Limehouse, who is one of the better-known and better-funded candidates — he raised just over $540,000, according to his latest FEC filing, with $400,000 of that coming from a personal loan — said the incessant discussion of Sanford’s personal life was a problem in and of itself.

“I like Gov. Sanford’s strong fiscally conservative message … What I don’t like is the constant, you know, chattering regarding his past instances of leaving his job that sort of thing. It just comes up constantly and I think it’s a distraction,” Limehouse said. So much so, he said, he thinks it would make Sanford a problematic Republican nominee in the general election, and a problematic congressman.

Former state Sen. John Kuhn, another of the more well-known and well-funded candidates, said that the media focus on Sanford’s marital infidelities was actually doing the former governor a favor, distracting from what Kuhn sees as his myriad of other problems.

“Mark Sanford’s hoping to make this race about his, you know, personal indiscretions and how he should be forgiven, but … he has record setting ethics violations, he broke his term limits pledge that he made to the people, and you know, we want to forgive him for what he’s done, but you can’t use taxpayer money to visit your mistress and abandon your office and lie to your staff and do these things he’s done and expect to be re-elected,” Kuhn said.

“It’s one thing to be forgiven, but it’s another thing to forget. I mean, the voters don’t want to forget all those things,” Kuhn added.

State Rep. Peter McCoy called Sanford a hypocrite for seeking to return to public office in the wake of the scandal and surrounding brouhaha.

“He wants a second chance and he wants to ask the voters to forgive him for his issues, and, frankly, he didn’t do it as a congressman for Bill Clinton. He voted to impeach Clinton; he didn’t give him a second chance,” McCoy said.

McCoy’s also attacked Sanford as a career politician who broke his term-limit pledge. When Sanford ran for Congress for the first time in 1994, he promised he would stay only three terms, and then he would leave. Indeed, he left office six years later, but his opponents contend that trying to go back over a decade later violates the pledge.

Elizabeth Moffly, the lone woman in the race, echoed that criticism, saying that it “sends the wrong message” to return to Congress after taking that pledge. She said she was hearing constituents say that Sanford had lost touch with the district voters.

Speaking to TheDC after leaving a women’s luncheon, she said the women there had said of Sanford that “He is acting like he is above the rest, that he’s no longer part of the local level, that he’s become elite.”

Sanford was not present at the event because he was in New York for the “Today Show.” Instead, he sent a surrogate, which Moffly said was just evidence of him being out of touch. She said that while he might raise a lot of money in New York, he should be in the district meeting with people, “not trying to buy the elections.”

Moffly is another candidate who bills herself as the anti-career politician. In addition to being the only woman in the Republican field, she describes herself as “probably one of the only self-employed entrepreneurs in the crowd” and notes that she has “never been employed by the government.” She also makes it a point that she has been a longtime active member of Republican Party “since the early ’80s,” unlike some of her opponents who “just showed up in December.”

In a radio ad that began last week, Moffly went after Sanford, Turner, Kuhn, Bostic, Grooms and Limehouse as the guys the “good ol’ boy establishment is trying to shove down the throats of District 1.” Unlike them, she says, she is “not a puppet of the power structure.”

“If you elect any of the same old crowd, the most you’ll ever get is a slap on the back, a phony smile and an empty promise,” she says in the ad.

Then there is Keith Blandford.

Blandford is a self-described “Ron Paul-er” who has previously run for office as a member of the Libertarian Party. In an attempt to get a better shot at winning, he jumped into the Republican primary this time around.

And he has nothing unkind to say about Sanford.

“I can say that I really appreciate Sanford, and he is, I’ve watched him throughout his career, and we believe very much in what he believes, and I think we could do a lot worse. I have no problems with what he stands for and what he believes at all. Sanford’s a really good one,” Blandford told TheDC.

The other candidates, by contrast, earn his scorn.

“It’s so gross,” he says of the experience of campaigning. “I feel like I have to take a shower for like an hour after these candidate forums. Yuck. I’m really taking one for the team.”

Those feelings extend to the sitting members of Congress whose ranks he is running to join.

“I wouldn’t want to have anything to do with those creatures if I went up there,” he says. “You know, pretty much, they have nothing to teach me … you gotta have somebody who’s just not gonna listen to those losers.”

Sanford is not the only one to get the scarlet letter of the “career politician” thrown at them. Four other members of the field — Limehouse, McCoy, state Rep. Andy Patrick and state Sen. Larry Grooms — currently hold state office, and, the week they spoke to TheDC, were shuttling back and forth between the legislative session in Columbia and campaign events in the 1st District. Kuhn is a former state senator.

These are Moffly’s “good ol’ boys,” and Turner lumps them in with Sanford in a recent ad that tells voters to “break up with career politicians.”

Grooms says his time in state office and the experience that it has afforded him as one of his major assets. The way he differentiates himself from the field of 16, he says, is that “I point to my record. There’s a proven track record of standing firm on principle and of actually voting against some contentious budgets.”

He describes his time in state government as “training” to be a congressman.

“Learning how to work with other legislators; learning how to enlarge your circle of conservatives, to be able to move something forward. That’s not a skill that you just pick up from day one,” Grooms says. “Walking in the room and understanding what is possible and what is not. Knowing when to charge forward and when to hold your ground.”

“Those are things that are learned over time,” Grooms said, “and I’m pretty good at what I do.”

Limehouse, likewise, portrays his experience as a boon.

“I would be a conservative, a fiscally conservative budget balancer that knows how to balance a budget, that knows that we need a balanced budget amendment, but also is able to accomplish things and get things done,” Limehouse said. “As a state legislator, I’m constantly in the forefront of getting roads built and bridges built and airports built, and seeing that the planes and trains all run on time. That’s one of my strengths is being a conservative and an effective conservative.”

Limehouse is one of the few that does not sound particularly concerned about navigating the crowded, star-studded field.

“Well, I stand out in a crowd pretty well cause I’m 6’3” and I weigh about 285,” he jokes, then adds seriously: “You do the best you can – whether you’re running against one opponent or 16, it’s the same thing. You just work hard.”

McCoy emphasizes the fact that he is a former criminal prosecutor and a father. At 34, he is the youngest candidate in the field, and points out that he has barely had time to have a career in politics, joking that he was “still in grammar school” when some of the other candidates began their careers. That fact, he says, is what would make him such a good congressman.

“I’m in the middle of pursuing the American dream,” he said, saying that he therefore has a huge incentive to fight for policies that will keep the dream alive not just for future generations, but for himself. The other candidates, he said, have already achieved the American dream. “They’ll go to D.C. with a little less in the fight.”

Patrick says it is his multitude of different experiences, as “a soldier and veteran and small business owner, and being a government official both elected and unelected, and a father of five” that would make him a great congressman. A former special agent in the Secret Service, Patrick says he has “seen government from the outside in and the inside out,” and as a small business owner he understands how to “make payroll” and “put together a budget.” He touts his “low country values of strong family, strong community, and strong commitment to passing down a better America to the next generation,” and says those values best emulate those of now-Sen. Scott.

“I think I best reflect Tim’s values and can best represent the people of the 1st Congressional District in the same way that Tim did,” Patrick says.

Kuhn touts his time in the state Senate as evidence that he is not a career politician, saying that his record in Columbia showed that he was willing to fight for policies even when they were politically unpopular.

“When I was in the state Senate, the leadership of the Republican Party … brought up a borrowing bill for a quarter million dollars, you know, for $250 million, and I thought, well, this is exactly what we need to stop, this kind of borrowing that is not useful,” Kuhn recounted. “So I filibustered the bill for two days to kill it at the end of the session, and I did kill it, and I did it protect the taxpayers.” He noted that the bill did eventually pass.

“It cost me my seat in the state Senate because the leadership was mad that I would stop the spending, and I think, you know, that’s exactly what we need in Washington: someone who’s willing to stand up. And I think a lot of the voters here in this district realize that I was willing to stand on principle and cost myself a Senate seat, but stand up for the voters and the taxpayers, and they respect that and are going to elect me for it,” he said.

The primary is set for March 19, and the top two candidates will participate in a run-off if no candidate gets over fifty percent of the vote. The winner will likely face off against Colbert Busch, the expected Democratic nominee, on May 7.

There is a vast disparity in fundraising between the Republican candidates, which, though not always an indicator of viability, will be important in a race where the expected Democratic nominee will be very well-funded. Colbert Busch has raised $318,559 according to her FEC filing, and still has $208,630 cash on hand. That puts her in a strong financial position heading into the general election, as she is facing only one other Democrat in the primary, and does not have to spend money on a prolonged and competitive primary battle like her Republican opponents.

Several candidates on the Republican side raised comparable amounts of money. Kuhn raised the most — $550,103, followed by Limehouse with $540,115. Turner raised $376,453, Sanford raised $334,397, and Grooms raised $323,815. Moffly raised $207,155. Curtis Bostic raised $187,272.

Patrick and McCoy each raised just over $60,000. Hoffman raised $55,009. Nash raised $21,287.

All of the other candidates raised mere four-digit sums of money to finance their campaign race, or, in the case of Blandford and Pinkston, did not file with the FEC.

Bryant is one in the latter group – he raised a mere $5,522, and $5,340 of that is a personal loan to the campaign. He seems to realize he is unlikely to win, but he said he hoped his run would keep other potential candidates from being “turned away or intimidated by this election process” and the money and name recognition that it theoretically requires.

“It’s pretty serious … I’m learning every day about it. But I wouldn’t want anybody to be turned off or intimidated and not give it a shot if, at some level, if they really feel they have something to offer,” Bryant said.

“So I hope at the very least we make some people think about things, and hopefully we’ll do well,” Bryant said. “And maybe the next person that’s thinking about doing it might be a little intimidated by the process, and they’ll go, ‘Oh well, that engineer guy from South Carolina, he didn’t have anything really, anything going for him in the standard political talk, but he tried it and he survived.’”

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