Election 2012: Unlikely Democratic nominee faces uphill battle in 7th Congressional District

09/16/2012 12:00 AM

09/17/2012 2:11 PM

The unlikely candidate for South Carolina’s new seat in Congress is pressing an unlikely message – touting unions.

During the Democratic National Convention, Gloria Bromell Tinubu advocated for unions as a way to provide livable wages for workers.

The Coastal Carolina University teacher who hopes to represent the state’s new 7th District in Congress – which stretches from Chesterfield County on the N.C. border to Florence to Myrtle Beach to Florence – has received sizable contributions from unions and their members. And earlier this month, the Georgetown County native was endorsed by the S.C. Working Families Party, a third party started by labor unions.

Union advocacy is an unorthodox political tactic in South Carolina, which has one of the nation’s lowest unionization rates. Independent voters, a key voting bloc, are wary of the pro-union message.

And they are not the only ones.

Tinubu’s pro-union stance and liberal-leaning message perplex the state’s Democratic Party establishment. There are hopes she can win in November, but privately many have doubts about her chances when she goes toe-to-toe with Republican Tom Rice, an Horry County businessman. Those Democrats question whether Tinubu, an African-American woman, can win enough crossover votes to carry the politically moderate district.

Most of the state’s top Democrats, black and white, supported Tinubu’s primary rivals. They were considered more moderate and more likely to win in November: state Rep. Ted Vick, D-Chesterfield, and Horry County attorney Preston Brittain, whose father, Tommy Brittain, is well-known in the state’s Democratic circles. But Vick dropped out after being arrested on a drunken driving charge. And Brittain lost lopsidedly to Tinubu in a June runoff.

The new eight-county district, drawn by the Republican-controlled General Assembly, was designed to favor a moderate Republican – or, Democrats hoped, a moderate-to-conservative Democrat who could attract independent voters.

About 30 percent of the district is African-American, the most loyal Democratic voters in the state. While it has the second-highest concentration of black voters in any S.C. congressional district, the new district does not have enough black voters to elect an African-American to Congress. That means Tinubu needs white, independent voters to swing her way if she is to win in November.

‘True to her convictions’

Tinubu’s camp stands by her campaign’s union advocacy.

“Gloria has to be true to her convictions,” said Robbin Shipp, Tinubu’s spokeswoman. “She is well aware of the fact that workplaces that are unionized bring a higher standard of living to their employees. And it is because of unions that employees have five-day work weeks and benefits and breaks during the working day. ... Just because there’s a low union presence doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing for South Carolina.”

But political scientists who track South Carolina don’t see union support as offering a viable path to victory.

“In the Pee Dee, the hospitality industry is not heavily organized. Neither is small manufacturing and farming,” said Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political scientist and pollster. “So putting a lot of her eggs into the union basket is unlikely to get votes in.”

Still, Tinubu’s dominating performance in June’s Democratic primary and runoff has raised expectations among her supporters.

“She had an awesome ground game in the primary,” said Sally Howard, former chairwoman of the Horry County Democratic Party and past president of the Democratic Women’s Council of Horry County.

“She turned out more than a minority vote. They organized retired union workers here and had good turnout of white voters as well,” Howard said. “I am encouraged ... she can attract some middle-of-the-road and independent voters in the general election.”

Top Democrats wade in

Tinubu’s supporters say union advocacy is only one piece of their broader message on improving life for the district’s residents and restoring the American dream.

“Independents, Democrats, Republicans are all being affected by the economy. We’re all in this together,” Shipp said. “Gloria has a plan for turning it around and she’s talking a lot about how to do that.”

Tinubu’s message is about bringing economic development and jobs to the rural Pee Dee by improving education, infrastructure and access to health care.

“She’s sharp. She’s knowledgeable, and she has a strong economic message and education message,” Howard said. “She also has an amazing personal story, and she talks about how she was born in Georgetown County and got the education she needed thanks to the Democratic Party that fought for education initiatives and helped her achieve. And now she wants to pay the state back.”

Growing up on a tobacco farm with parents who had elementary-level educations, Tinubu relied on a bike to get around the University of South Carolina and later Howard University, wearing clothes she made with her mother’s portable sewing machine. She later earned her doctorate from Clemson University in applied economics and taught. She won election to the Atlanta City Council and the Georgia House of Representatives, a seat she resigned in December to return to her home state.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has hopes for the 7th District race, pledging $374,000 toward TV ads, according to Tinubu’s campaign. Last week, that organization made a $160,000 TV buy in Florence and Myrtle Beach to start running ads in October that will continue through Election Day.

Tinubu’s campaign also points to the impoverished nature of most of the eight-county district, hoping to draw support from disaffected voters who may not have cast ballots in previous elections.

Now that she is the Democratic nominee, Tinubu also is getting help from top S.C. Democrats.

S.C. Democratic Chairman Dick Harpootlian and U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of Columbia have weighed in with big contributions. Clyburn also hosted a fundraiser for Tinubu last week in Washington, D.C.

Don Fowler, former chairman of the national Democratic Party, is co-chairing Tinubu’s election committee, and state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, one of the state’s most powerful Democrats in national circles, is advising her.

The S.C. Democratic Party also has assigned a full-time employee to work with Tinubu on field operations.

Rice camp expects victory

While Tinubu reconciles with the state’s Democratic establishment, Republican Rice, chairman of the Horry County Council, is advocating for a smaller, less-intrusive federal government, an end to deficit spending and a federal requirement for a balanced budget.

His base of support is voter-rich Horry County, which has more registered voters than any other county in the district.

Rice, a retired lawyer and accountant, spent much of last week in Washington, raising money with another moderate Republican, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of Seneca.

Since June, he also has hired a couple of seasoned S.C. political hands to help with fundraising and campaign operations.

Internal polling shows Rice winning in November, said Walt Whetsell, a Rice campaign consultant.

“We have every indication that the district is as favorable to a Republican as it has ever been and very favorable to Tom Rice,” said Whetsell, who declined to share those polling numbers.

He added that GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney also is polling well in the district, which should help Rice.

While not aligned with Tea Party Republicans, Rice is paying them attention, speaking last week to the Myrtle Beach Tea Party.

“He may be starting to get a sense of the frustration, anger and determination of the people who really understand how big of a crisis we are facing,” said Joe Dugan, chairman of the Myrtle Beach group, which advocates reducing the federal deficit and repealing health care reform. “But he has got a ways to go.”

Rice also has a secret weapon – Gov. Nikki Haley.

The Lexington Republican endorsed Rice and campaigned with him before the GOP primary, helping to put him over the top in a race that he had trailed in. Haley plans to get involved in local races again before November.

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