Andre is back. For at least two weeks.
One of only a handful of S.C. politicians so well known that voters recognize him by his first name, former Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer led a crowded field of Republicans Tuesday in the race for the new 7th District congressional seat, receiving a third of the votes in the GOP primary.
Bauer will face Tom Rice, chairman of the Horry County Council, on June 26 in the GOP runoff for the newly drawn Pee Dee district, anchored in Horry County.
It could be just the political resurrection that Bauer, the onetime boy wonder of S.C. politics, is itching for.
Known as one of the hardest-working politicians in the state, Bauer was elected lieutenant governor at the ripe old age of 33 after serving in the S.C. House and state Senate, and re-elected at 37.
Then, his political career fell apart.
Speeding tickets, a plane crash and a campaign comment comparing poor people to stray animals led voters to doubt Bauer’s maturity. He flopped mightily in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial race, finishing a distant fourth.
But the man who practically grew up at the State House refused to give up on his political dream, moving to Horry County and searching for a way back into the game. And with high name ID, dogged determination and a feverish work ethic, Bauer, now 43, made the GOP runoff.
But will it be enough to win the June 26 runoff against Rice and the November general election against Democrat Gloria Tinubu, a former Georgia lawmaker who has moved back to her home state and upset Preston Brittain, the Democratic heir apparent who had the backing of U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn and the state’s other top Democrats?
Winthrop pollster and political scientist Scott Huffmon thinks Bauer has a shot.
“He’s got a ton of negatives, but all of his negatives are already known by voters and already working against him,” Huffmon said. “He’s not likely to crash another plane or get busted again going 100 miles per hour between now and the runoff. There’s room for him to move up.”
Only Monday morning, Florence commuters were getting a glimpse of classic campaigning by Bauer.
Slim and dark-haired, Bauer stood at a busy intersection, hoisting an election sign in the air and waving to traffic.
It’s a technique that Bauer has used for years – getting out in front of the maximum number of voters, even if it is only for a three-second glimpse and so hokey that some consider it unbecoming for a would-be congressman.
Approached by a reporter from The State, Bauer declined an interview. He said he has been burned in the past by the press, which has documented his missteps.
Those missteps have kept Bauer’s negatives high, particularly among white-collar voters in the state’s urban centers. Ask those voters about Bauer and they remember the follies.
In 2003, Bauer ran two red lights in downtown Columbia because he was running late for a state Senate session. A police officer stopped Bauer and then pointed a gun at him, saying the lieutenant governor approached him in an “aggressive manner.”
In 2006, Bauer was pulled over by a state trooper after he was clocked at 101 mph on an interstate. That same year, a plane that Bauer was flying crashed on takeoff from a Cherokee County airstrip.
During his 2010 gubernatorial bid, Bauer compared poor people to stray animals.
“My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals,” Bauer said at a town hall meeting. “You know why? Because they breed. You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t ... think too much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better.”
Voters rarely speak of Bauer, the poor kid from Charleston who clawed his way up the political ranks, snagging a S.C. House seat, later a state Senate seat and, finally, the lieutenant governor’s post, making him the nation’s youngest lieutenant governor in the nation.
They don’t know of Bauer, the House candidate, who rented an asphalt truck and filled in potholes himself after constituents complained about them.
But some of Bauer’s good works have yielded lasting dividends. As lieutenant governor, Bauer and his staff remade the state Office on Aging, putting new focus on seniors’ needs. Now, his time overseeing that office has earned Bauer the support of many seniors in the retiree-rich 7th District, a highly-coveted constituency.
“No one is going to outwork Andre. This is a guy who, in high school, wore a tuxedo one day every month so he could have a free one to wear to the prom,” said Katon Dawson, former chairman of the S.C. Republican Party, recalling the teenaged Bauer, who struck a deal with a local formal wear store to give him a tux for prom if he wore one a day a month to school as advertising for the store.
“He always works hard. He always has creative ideas,” Dawson said. “What he lacks in campaign skill, he makes up in energy, charisma and hard work.”
But charisma may not be enough to overcome a new charge that Bauer is a carpetbagger, an opportunist who recently moved to the new 7th District just to run for Congress.
“Andre moves here six months ago to run for this office,” his GOP runoff opponent Rice said. “If you look at his (campaign) reports, 70 percent of his campaign contributions came from outside of this district. He raised as much money from (U.S. Rep. Joe) Wilson’s district as he did from this district. Would voters prefer a representative who represents them or a second representative for Wilson’s district?”
In contrast, Rice stresses he is a lifelong resident of the district.
Bauer shrugs off the carpetbagger claim, saying in a debate that he moved to the new district 11/2 years before its boundaries were drawn by the General Assembly – long enough to have made 16 real estate transactions.
Democratic nominee Tinubu also is being accused of being an opportunist, moving to South Carolina from Georgia to pursue the congressional seat.
Bill Pickle, chairman of the Florence County Republican Party, said voters are paying attention to the carpet-bagging accusations. But they are most interested in finding a candidate who will represent them in Washington, he added.
“For so long, we were stuck in the 6th District. More than anything, voters want fair and equal representation for our part of the state,” Pickle said. “People want someone to be their voice and bring jobs, economic development here.”
Whoever wins the seat in November could have a leg up on a lifetime job.
The District 7 seat is one of only 12 open congressional seats in the nation this year. With no incumbent to battle and no well-known roadmap on how to win it, the winner is likely to keep the seat for years to come.
Drawn by a GOP-controlled Legislature, the district is expected to elect a Republican – Bauer or Rice.
“The person who wins it, they can stay in it as long as they want,” former GOP chairman Dawson predicted. “Voters should pick wisely.”
Reach Smith at (803) 771-8658.