[Updated] Just like Rep. George Radanovich’s decision to retire, Rep. Harry Brown’s coming announcement that he will not seek re-election in 2010 is nothing to get the GOP panicked: While the open seat could provoke some headache for the defending party, Republicans have the clear upper-hand to keep conservative SC-1.
And yet, not only does Brown’s exit further water down the narrative of Democrats running for the exits, but it is also the ideal counter to the DCCC’s woes as I diagnosed them yesterday: The rapidly declining number of seats to which the GOP has to pay attention to. By making SC-01 pop on our radar screen, Brown’s decision (the second outright retirement of the cycle for House Republicans, and the sixth overall) could perhaps force the GOP to spend some additional resources on defense; and as Politico reminds us today, the NRCC is facing massive crash trouble (just as it did in 2008), which will already limit its ability to spread wide and target as many Democratic seats as it needs to in order to get anywhere close a majority.
That SC-1 could end up weighing on the NRCC does not mean (contrary to what The Fix wrote today) that the open seat landscape is reaching “parity.” The numbers speak for themselves. Of the 10 Dem-held open seats, GOP has a very strong chance of picking-up 8 (that includes the very tough KS-3, TN-6, LA-3 and TN-8; WA-3, which is as swing as it gets; PA-7 and NH-1, where the NRCC has managed top-tier recruitment; and HI-1, where special election rules are a major problem for Democrats). But of the 14 GOP-held open seats, only 3 are correspondingly promising opportunities (DE-AL, IL-10 and PA-06); an additional 3-4 are long shots (FL-12, KS-04, CA-19) and 7 are fully out of reach.
SC-1 belongs to that second category. In 2008, supermarket heiress Linda Ketner mounted a surprisingly spirited campaign (to a great extent thanks to substantial self-funding) that caught people’s attention only in the final weeks. On Election Day, she lost by a narrow 52% to 48%, by far the closest call of Brown’s career. On the other hand, SC-01 gave George W. Bush and John McCain 61% and 57% of the vote, so it’s the sort of district in which Democrats would have had a good shot at an open race in 2008, but less so in less favorable cycles. One specific reason for this is that African-Americans make up 20% of the district. That partly explains why Ketner was able to get so close last year, but it also suggests the Democratic nominee will face an even tougher electorate in 2010, where turnout should be substantially lower among African-Americans.
In short, the situation is similar to CA-19’s: Republicans are strongly favored to hold on to the open seat, but Democrats could force them to pay attention to the district. (That’s more than we can say of GOP open seats in MI-2, SC-3, OK-5, KS-1, GA-09, where Republicans are untouchable.)
What’s most interesting about Brown’s retirement is that, like Democrats Moore and Gordon, he might have been scared away by the prospect of a tough re-election campaign, only this time the threat was coming from his own party. Brown, whose hold on the district was never that solid, had already drawn three Republican challengers, the most prominent of which bears a famous last name: “Tumpy” Campbell, the son of former Governor Carroll Campbell (1987-1995). Also running were Isle of Palms councilman Ryan Buckhannon and Katherine Jenerette, a former congressional aide who had already challenged Brown in 2008.
Campbell’s candidacy was enough to make Brown one of the most endangered incumbents in 2010 primaries, so does his exit suggest other Republicans who are facing nomination fights could choose not to seek re-election? Dan Burton (IN-05) and most importantly Bob Inglis (SC-04) are both facing tough primary challenges, for instance. Thankfully for the NRCC, neither district is hospitable to Democrats so whether these incumbents retire or are defeated in the primary will matter little in terms of the bipartisan balance of power.
Campbell, Buckhannon and Jenerrette are obviously expected to stick in the race now that it’s open. Attorney Paul Thurmond, the son of longtime senator Storm Thurmond, has already announced that he is exploring the race; his entry would set up a clash of political dynasties. Other candidates, perhaps some state legislators, could join them.
On the Democratic side, all eyes are now on Linda Ketner: After briefly considering a rematch, she had ruled out running again in early 2009. Among other reasons, she had cited the tough political climate. Might she change her mind now that she won’t face an incumbent? Whatever the environment, an open seat is an open seat. Ketner’s candidacy would create a tough situation for the GOP, as it would almost certainly force them to spend money to defend SC-1 to counter Ketner’s self-funding abilities. Other potential Democratic candidates include state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis and Robert Burton, a former South Carolina Housing, Finance, and Development Authority Commissioner.
Update: As if often the case when a congressman retires, the field has been rapidly developing. On the Democratic side, the most important development might be that Linda Ketner has opened the door to running. “This is unexpected. It’s an interesting development and I’ll take the time to consider it,” she told The Atlantic. Also, I was wrong in my morning write-up: Robert Burton is already running, so Democrats will have at least one candidate with electoral experience.
On the Republican side, the biggest news is probably that former Rep. Tommy Hartnett is considering running for his old seat back; he is now 65. A long list of state legislators are also being mentioned, including state Senator Chip Campsen, state Senator Larry Grooms, state Rep. Chip Limehouse and state Rep. Jimmy Merrill. Add to that the Thurmond and Campbell last names, and it certainly looks like this June primary will be very contested.