Senate 2008 Guru: Following the Races

Keeping a close eye on developments in the 2008 U.S. Senate races

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

SC-Sen: Introducing Robert Barber Jr.

South Carolina's senior (though freshman) Senator, Lindsey Graham, is considered to be one of the safest Republican incumbents in 2008. Indeed, even the Guru ranked South Carolina a "fifth tier" seat (on a five-tier scale) back in January. Can South Carolina be written off, then, as a potential battleground Senate race in 2008? It shouldn't be. Why? I'll quote from Swing State Project's post "AL-Sen: Introducing Ron Sparks" (by which, you may notice, this post is partially inspired):

Lighting brushfires behind supposedly Republican lines has the potential to stretch NRSC and RNC resources to the breaking point, all in a critical Presidential election year. And, of course: you can't ever expect to win if you don't even show up.
So, to start, what's wrong with Lindsey Graham? Despite a reputation as something of a maverick, Graham has a Presidential Support Score of 91%. As of last November, George W. Bush's approval in South Carolina was down to 41% and his disapproval up to 56%. So, while only 4 in 10 South Carolinians approve of Bush's performance, Graham supports him 9 times out of 10. Empowering Veterans has targetted Graham for his lousy record on veterans and the middle class:

Awarded a Grade of D- by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America
Awarded a Rating of 0%in 2004 by the Disabled American Veterans
Awarded a Rating of 42% in 2005 by the Disabled American Veterans
Awarded a Rating of 40% in 2006 by the Disabled American Veterans
It goes on. Meanwhile, Graham's base has their problems with him, manifested in his getting booed at the recent state Republican convention. That doesn't sound like an excited foundation of support.

So, again to quote the SSP post introducing the netroots to Ron Sparks (and replacing Alabama references with South Carolina references):

Is there a South Carolina Democrat credible enough to mount a respectable challenge to Graham--a challenge that's strong enough to turn some heads on the national scene, and maybe, just maybe has an outside shot of delivering a deep South victory for the Democratic Party? Meet the man who could make it happen: Robert Barber Jr.
Most recently, Robert Barber Jr. was the top vote-getting Democrat in South Carolina's 2006 elections. His 540,306 votes (or 49.79%) fell just 3,108 votes shy of defeating incumbent Republican Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer. Barber even outpaced the Democratic gubernatorial candidate by about 5%. It's possible that Barber might even be South Carolina's Lieutenant Governor today if his campaign wasn't distracted about two weeks before Election Day by a tragically unexpected kitchen fire in the restaurant run by Barber and his family, and originally opened by his grandparents in 1946.

Taking it back a step, Barber has a unique and impressive resume. Except for his time spent at two graduate school programs, Barber is a lifelong South Carolinian. Wikipedia offers a succinct encapsulation of his academic career and early professional and electoral career:

After graduating from Columbia High School in 1967, he attended Wofford College and graduated in 1971. Barber later received a Masters of Divinity from Duke University in 1976. He then returned to his native state and served as a minister in two Laurens County churches before entering law school. Receiving his law degree in 1982 from the South Texas College of Law, Barber engaged in a general practice of law in Charleston before being elected to the Charleston County School Board in 1984.
So, by the age of 35, Barber is already a minister-lawyer-Charleston School Board member. The biography continues:

Barber served for four years on the Charleston County School Board and from 1986-1988 served as its chairman. In 1988, he was elected into the South Carolina House of Representatives. Serving in the House from 1989-1994, Barber spent time on the Judiciary, Ways and Means, and Operations and Management Committees. In 1993 and 1994, he chaired the Joint Legislative Committee on Energy. In 1994, rather than run for re-election, Barber ran for the U.S. House of Representatives as the Democratic candidate for the First Congressional District, but lost to a political newcomer named Mark Sanford [who, of course, went on to the Governorship of South Carolina].
So, Barber has plenty of political and legislative experience. But the best part, really showing his true colors as a progressive, occurs between his Congressional run and his Lt. Gov. bid:

After leaving the SC House, Barber split his time between running Bowen's Island Seafood Restaurant, which his grandparents founded in the 1940s, and serving as a consultant for a range of predominantly not-for-profit public interest groups. A conservationist, health care advisor, and advocate for the state's elderly population, Barber has attempted to improve the lives of many South Carolinians through his work for organizations such as the South Carolina Wildlife Federation, American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, the College of Charleston, the Palmetto Conservation Foundation, the Sierra Club and the Association of Council on Aging Directors.
Perhaps the most heart-warming part is the mention that Barber met his wife in the fifth grade. They dated through high school, got married after college, and his wife LaNelle is a public school teacher in Charleston.

Barber's tireless advocacy work for such progressive organizations led to truly impassioned endorsements from organizations like the Conservation Voters of South Carolina. You can also read more about Barber courtesy of the Sierra Club, WLTX, WCSC, Brad Warthen's Blog (a very interesting perspective), or Barber's own Lt. Gov. campaign announcement from which one can get a sense of his rhetoric and priorities:

My campaign will be based on Main Street values cherished by South Carolinians-hard work, spiritual grounding, common sense, bipartisan cooperation and steady progress in education and the economy. Above all, I will keep in mind that strong stewardship of South Carolina's tax dollars is essential. My family and I will visit 110 Main Streets in South Carolina during this campaign-and I'll give 110% to the effort. ...

Being Lieutenant Governor should involve much more than simply wearing a purple robe at the State House, sending out an occasional news release and presiding over ribbon cuttings. The Lieutenant Governor needs to be at the forefront on improving education, creating jobs, increasing state government efficiency, reforming taxes, conserving natural resources and providing better care for our senior citizens, our young children, and other vulnerable citizens. ...

Over the next several months, I will lay out my Main Street platform in each of these substantive areas of importance. I also will focus on three items very closely connected to the office of Lieutenant Governor. First, I will strive to improve the working relationships between the Governor, Lieutenant Governor and the state legislature. Second, I will work to make the legislative process more accountable and accessible to all citizens. Finally, as the next Lieutenant Governor, I will create a more effective Office on Aging for our senior citizens.

Like South Carolinians in every corner of the state, my heart goes out to those who have suffered immeasurable losses from Hurricane Katrina. Voters should and will demand that South Carolina's local, state and federal officials work in seamless coordination so we are prepared for even the worst case emergencies - and that includes not only hurricanes but earthquakes, tornadoes, transportation accidents, toxic spills and terrorist acts.
Robert Barber Jr. has a strong record of public service as a community leader, a legislator, and an advocate. He clearly has the desire to continue his service. And, based on his 2006 Lt. Gov. race performance, he indeed has a strong base of support from which to start. Meanwhile, the only South Carolina Democrats about which there is even speculation of a Senate bid are 2004 Senate candidate Inez Tenenbaum, the former South Carolina Superintendent of Education who lost to Jim DeMint 54-44, and former state Democratic Party Chair Joe Erwin.

A Senate challenge to Lindsey Graham would no doubt be an uphill battle, to be sure. Graham's 56-34 approval-disapproval is solid, but hardly intimidating enough to write off by any means. For instance, Lindsey Graham has an approval among black voters of 45%, among Democrats of 47%, among liberals of 46%, and among pro-choice voters of 52%. While this indicates broad "contentment" with Graham, should a viable Democrat step forward to challenge him, that Democrat could likely count on gaining much of that support.

Ultimately, in Robert Barber Jr., we have a progressive small businessman, former preacher, former legislative leader and community advocate with a desire to serve his state and a strong foundation of support from which to begin a campaign. Maybe someone should ask him if he's interested in running for Senate.


Blogger Leo Fishman said...

Robert Barber was not the leading Democratic vote getter in 2006; that honor belonged to Mr. Jim Rex who emerged as State Superintendent of Education. Just a correction - nothing meant to demean the formidable reputation of Mr. Barber

5:40 PM, May 30, 2007  
Blogger Lane said...

Actually, Robert got 540K+ votes to Jim Rex's 513K+ votes.

Robert was indeed the leading vote getter on the Dem side. He's a great candidate and started that campaign with little recognition outside of Charleston. He would be a formidable candidate should he get in the race.

5:57 PM, May 30, 2007  
Blogger Senate2008Guru said...

Lane - Thanks for correcting the "correction". The reason Rex was able to win his race with fewer votes than Barber is that Rex's Superintendent race also featured several third party candidates. The Independence, Green, Libertarian, and Constitution Party candidates combined for about 5% of the overall vote.

6:11 PM, May 30, 2007  
Blogger Jack said...

Leo - You are wrong. Barber got more than 25,000 more votes than Jim Rex.

Rex won because there were three people in the race, but he only got 48%.

Here are the official numbers:

Robert Barber - 540,306 votes
Jim Rex - 513,912 votes

6:16 PM, May 30, 2007  
Blogger yankeedoodler said...

There's no reason whatsoever that Graham shouldn't get as strong and well-funded a challenge as possible. Like Sununu, he has tied himself pretty tightly to McCain, and as St. John sinks like a stone with the surge, so should he.

Fantastic post, btw.

Dean, Blue Hampshire

8:31 PM, May 30, 2007  

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