Endangered Species of the American South
Seneca, South Carolina
Early on a steamy Saturday in August, the Democrats in Senator John Edwards's birthplace have gathered for their monthly breakfast in a windowless Rotary Club meeting room, way in back of the Community Restaurant. There are thirty-five of them, a record crowd in recent years. Mostly seniors, mostly white, they carry vivid memories of the fine old days when their native-son presidential candidate was growing up. Back then, Republicans were the ones who huddled in the back rooms of diners, looking like some quaint, outmoded social club that just keeps meeting for no special reason. Nowadays, the Oconee County Republicans have a meeting place of their own, a spacious headquarters just two blocks up North First Street. And it's the Democrats sitting under these royal-blue Rotary banners, staring at that wall mural of Lake Keowee, forking scrambled eggs, trying to stay upbeat.
"Now, some of you folks have got to run for office," says county chairman Charles Hamby, a vigorous protégé of the late bluegrass legend Bill Monroe. These days, Republicans don't just carry the national elections in places like South Carolina; over the past two decades, they've started to take over everything from the state legislature to the coroner's office, and it just keeps getting tougher to find loyal Democrats who are willing to campaign as sure losers. But the main order of this morning's business is next February's presidential primary, a high-profile event that is supposed to lift the sagging spirits of South Carolina Democrats. Coming right after Iowa and New Hampshire, the primary is also supposed to help the national Democrats scare up a candidate who can compete for at least a few of the South's 153 electoral votes; no Democrat has yet won the White House without carrying at least one state from the former Confederacy.
So far, the plan looks like a bust. Six months before voting day, none of the candidates have caught the fancy of Democrats here, or anywhere else in the South. Even the golden boy of the New South Democrats--the man once widely expected to carry the mantle of Carter and Clinton in 2004--cannot gain a toehold in his own backyard. "Of course, we're partial to Edwards," says 76-year-old Maxie Duke, secretary-treasurer of the Oconee Democrats. "But we're not all sold." Along with most of Seneca's remaining Democrats, Duke went to Edwards's 50th-birthday party here in June, a media event staged in front of the house his mill-working daddy and mama rented for $35 a month at the time of his birth. "That was nice and all," Duke says. "He's smart, and he comes across well. But--I don't know. I'm keeping my mind open." For something better to come along? "Well, for something."
Something else is here this morning, as it happens. "We were supposed to have a guy from the Kerry campaign," chairman Hamby is saying, "but he had to fly off to Washington. Guess we'll excuse him for that. But we do have--what was your name?--from the Lieberman campaign." The Connecticut senator's rosy-cheeked state director for South Carolina grins and whispers up to Hamby, "Barry Butler." "OK," Hamby says, "Barry Butler will talk to us now."
In early polls, Joe Lieberman has looked like Edwards's main competition in South Carolina. But the Oconee Democrats don't even bother to applaud for his man. Even in a rural county with just 67,000 souls, the candidates and their flacks have become a regular fixture. And more often than not, they tend to say things that show they don't understand the South a whole lot better than the national Democratic Party.
"As you've seen in the papers, we've lost a lot of textile jobs here," Butler informs the inhabitants of this former textile village, all of whom passed boarded-up mills and rusted-out warehouses on their way to breakfast this morning. Worse, when he's asked whether Lieberman will be showing up in person in Oconee, Butler replies, "Oh, yes, we're trying to get him out into these rural counties."
These rural counties. Lieberman's man has neatly, albeit unwittingly, summed up the Democrats' troublesome attitude toward the South. And it is no small trouble. Not even Edwards, who seems to carry the South deep in his bones, has figured out a message that might carry a state in Dixie--this year, or any year in the foreseeable future.