Among the many electoral challenges Democrats face this fall is the mess in South Carolina, where the party should be giving the fire-breathing dragon of the Republican right, Senator Jim DeMint, a hard time in his re-election bid. DeMint, who promised Republicans that if they could block healthcare reform it would be President Obama’s "Waterloo," has led the GOP’s "Party of No" push. He’s fiercely ambitious, stirring talk of a possible presidential bid in 2012, and right now he’s traveling the country to help elect rigidly right-wing Republicans.
However, instead of tying DeMint down with a muscular challenge and raising hopes of an upset (as is happening with Democrat Elaine Marshall’s run against North Carolina’s first-term Republican senator, Richard Burr), the Democratic drive in the Palmetto State has become a national punch line. Party leaders had planned to nominate Vic Rawl, a former legislator and judge; instead, they got Alvin Greene, a surprise primary winner who has been unemployed since his involuntary discharge from the military—after superiors voiced concerns about his disorganization and inability to express his thoughts clearly. House majority whip James Clyburn suggested that Greene, who tried to pay his $10,400 primary filing fee with a personal check, might be a Republican plant, an idea that seems less farfetched after the revelation that Arizona Republicans recruited drifters to file as Green candidates in a scheme to siphon support from Democrats. Greene denies he’s a ringer. But the nominee was still asked to withdraw by state party chair Carol Fowler after it was revealed that he faced felony obscenity charges, on which he has since been indicted. But Greene has stayed on the ballot, which has put top Democrats in a terrible position. They can’t back DeMint, but they can’t back their nominee either.
If only there was an alternative! If only there was a credible contender with a record of local, state and national activism, with a firm grasp of the issues, thoughtful progressive positions and an easygoing yet professional style.
Well, there is. Green Party nominee Tom Clements will share the November ballot with DeMint and Greene. Clements is a native Southerner who worked for thirteen years with Greenpeace International and directed the Nuclear Control Institute before taking over in 2008 as southeastern coordinator for Friends of the Earth. He was a campaign manager to former Georgia Congressman Doug Bernard, an experienced player on the international stage since his days as a leading antiproliferation campaigner and an able spokesman on issues ranging from environmental racism to global warming to the green economy. Clements is economically populist, socially progressive and antiwar. And he knows the race should be about DeMint, not the foibles of his Democratic challenger. Accusing the incumbent of being so interested in national political positioning that he has gone "AWOL from South Carolina," Clements says it is folly to focus on Alvin Greene’s troubles. "I want [this race] to be about, Where is Jim DeMint, and why doesn’t Jim DeMint come back to South Carolina to face the voters and discuss the issues?" says Clements, who has gained steady coverage with his demand that the senator debate.
But could Democrats get comfortable with a candidate from the Green Party? Are they over the bitter memories of the 2000 presidential race, when Democrats accused Green presidential nominee Ralph Nader of peeling off just enough votes in Florida and New Hampshire to elect George W. Bush? They should be. A lot has changed in the past decade. Traditional Green issues, such as climate change and sustainability, have gone mainstream. Greens keep winning local elections, with 140-plus party members serving as mayors, county commissioners and school board members in dozens of states—including South Carolina. And Democrats would do well to recognize that the Greens have skipped runs that might have drawn votes away from progressive Democrats such as Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold.
So why not consider Clements as the alternative to DeMint? Why not back the Green Party nominee’s call for debates and help him get media attention and perhaps even sufficient funding for a serious TV campaign? Of course, it’s an uphill race in Strom Thurmond’s native state, but why not give DeMint the most credible challenge possible?
That’s the question a number of South Carolina Democrats are asking. Several local party groups have invited Clements to address their events, with the Lower Richland Democrats in Columbia observing, "Many of us Democrats are dismayed at the outcome of our primary for the US Senate. But for those of us who are passionate about providing economic opportunity for working families, saving our democracy from corporate control and saving our planet from irresponsible polluters, we have a viable alternative: Tom Clements." The Greater Columbia Central Labor Council of the South Carolina AFL-CIO has formally endorsed Clements as the candidate who "will best represent the interests of the working people of South Carolina."
Democrats and Greens are not about to paper over their differences anytime soon. But the South Carolina race presents savvy Democrats with an opportunity to avoid embarrassment, back a great progressive and give Jim DeMint the hard time he so richly deserves.