Promising to "bring home the bacon," celebrity chef and Charleston resident Nathalie Dupree has thrown her chef's hat into the ring for U.S. Senate.
A popular TV presence on national and local cooking shows and a lauded cookbook author, Dupree says she's grown frustrated with U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint's decision to campaign everywhere else but South Carolina — seemingly confident in his chances against long-shot Democratic opponent Alvin Greene.
"I'm asking the people of South Carolina to write in my name as a write-in candidate for the U.S. Senate against Jim DeMint," Dupree says. She announced her campaign on the shore of the Charleston Harbor, a location of particular concern to Dupree, due to DeMint's stalling on a grant sought by the State Ports Authority.
The last candidate to successfully run a write-in campaign was South Carolina's Strom Thurmond in 1954. If anyone would know the challenges and pitfalls of such a run, it would be Dupree's husband, historian and professor Jack Bass, who has authored a biography of the senator.
"I'm no Strom Thurmond," she says. "The odds of that happening today are far greater, and I know that, too. But it's a fight worth making that will enable us to show South Carolina's real stuff to the nation."
Dupree is hiring campaign staff and told The New York Times she plans to spend up to $100,000 on the run, including advertising.
Hearing the news, College of Charleston political science professor Jeri Cabot asked, "Nathalie Dupree, the chef?"
After processing it, Cabot said it will make for an interesting story.
"She's as qualified as anyone else running this campaign season," noting primary victories for a host of non-traditional candidates who challenged longtime politicians. "I don't think there are any other cooks in the Senate."
Dupree obviously understands her background in the kitchen is ripe for playful prose.
"I want to cook his goose," she says of DeMint. "And it's time to bring home the bacon."
Beyond the cooking quips (Dupree offers several, and frankly we could stir up a few more), this is one woman whose had enough of DeMint's politics.
Sen. Lindsey Graham and Congressman Henry Brown came to Charleston last month, seemingly to twist DeMint's arm over a $400,000 federal grant. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers needs the cash for initial studies on deepening the Charleston Harbor for larger ships.
Legislators often request money for specific projects back home in larger federal spending bills. Called earmarks, this spending has been DeMint's boogeyman, even though it accounts for a small amount of the budget compared to things like the military, Social Security, and Medicare.
DeMint has said he's not standing in the way of the port earmark, but he's not supporting it either, leaving South Carolina as the only state port system without a piece of an upcoming spending bill. The Post and Courier (no liberal rag, to be sure) wrote an editorial critical of DeMint. And the earmark stalling was the final straw for Dupree, too.
"This port is the economic engine of South Carolina," she says. "This port brought in BMW, Boeing, and Michelin. How can this be that we have a senator who is so vain and egotistical and driven for his own political agenda that he won't vote for $400,000 for this state, this city?"
With a lack of any major challengers, this campaign season has found DeMint all over the nation, raising money and finding far-right support for a variety of conservatives willing to challenge moderate Republicans. DeMint's success in the GOP primaries has prompted some to call him a kingmaker and ponder his chances as a presidential candidate in 2012.
"I want to have a senator who cares more about South Carolina than he does about electing people in Arizona and Alaska and Delaware," Dupree says. "We need two full-time senators working for us."
The candidate says that she'll reach out across the state to voters, visiting every county. "I'm going to walk the streets and talk to the people and I'm going to ask them if they have jobs. If the industry that they're in has suffered. And if more money coming into this state would help them keep their job or get a job," she says.
Dupree says she decided to run after conversations with several people frustrated at the alternative to voting for DeMint, namely casting a ballot for Alvin Greene.
"I've heard people say that at dinner parties and on the street and at Walmart that they didn't know who to vote for," she says.
But voters already have other options, including Democrat Alvin Greene.
"I don't know Alvin Greene, and I didn't vote for him, God bless him," says Dupree. "The only one I'm talking bad about in this campaign is Jim DeMint."
Dupree says this is all about DeMint, but it's also about Greene. The unlikely Democratic Primary winner made news with his awkward national media appearances and unusual economic development suggestions, like minting Alvin Greene action figures to stimulate job growth in South Carolina. It was also within hours of his victory in June that news broke of Greene's federal obscenity charge for allegedly showing pornography to a coed at a USC computer lab last fall.
The latest Rasmussen Reports polling suggests some hope for write-in candidates among moderates and Democrats desperate for an alternative. DeMint has the support of 64 percent of the likely voters polled in the Rasmussen survey, but Greene only earned 21 percent. Meanwhile, 72 percent of voters surveyed had an unfavorable opinion of Greene and well over half labeled their opinion "very unfavorable."
That suggests there may be some wiggle room beyond the 15 percent of voters still undecided or preferring another candidate, but it appears some leading Democrats are ready to hold their nose and vote for Greene, regardless of an alternative.
State Democratic Party Chairwoman Carol Fowler has been openly critical of Greene's candidacy and publicly asked him to remove himself from the ballot, but she'll vote for him come Nov. 2.
"When people ask me, I tell them to do what I'm going to do. That is, to vote the straight Democratic ticket," she says.
It remains to be seen whether voters will take Fowler's advice. Green Party candidate Tom Clements, the only other name on the ballot, knows a thing or two about desperate voters. Typically, Green Party candidates find little success beyond calling out the major parties on progressive issues like the environment, education, and Social Security. This year, some activists aren't just expecting Clements to show up and keep 'em honest — they expect him to compete.
"A lot of Democrats and independents and some Republicans don't have any place to go now," he says, noting he's been approached to speak to Democratic clubs across the state. "I think [Greene's nomination] has caused a lot more people to focus closely on my campaign. I welcome that, but it sure has resulted in a lot more work than I anticipated."
Fortunately, Dupree's husband knows a thing or two about the hard work necessary for a successful write-in victory. Bass wrote the biography Strom: The Complicated Personal and Political Life of Strom Thurmond.
In 1954, Sen. Burnet Maybank died just after winning the Democratic primary. Deep divisions in the party led Gov. James Byrnes of Charleston to seek out his own candidate to challenge the party's replacement on the ballot. Though Thurmond wasn't the first he called, he was the most anxious to get in the race, Bass told us in 2006.
"Thousands of pencils were made with Thurmond's name on them to signify the write-in campaign," he said.
Thurmond won, but resigned two years later to allow for a more traditional election. Write-ins since have been met with mixed success, with none matching Thurmond's senatorial feat.
Write-in candidates face two daunting challenges — educating voters on their positions and making sure they vote correctly on the ballot.
On an electronic ballot, a button below the listed candidates will take voters to another screen where they can type in a name, says Charleston County Elections and Voter Registration Executive Director Marilyn Bowers. The name doesn't have to be precise — Natalee Dupry would likely pass muster. But just listing "Dupree" won't count. "The intent of the voter has to be clear," Bowers says.
And there are the host of other write-in votes that Dupree will have to contend with, including legitimate write-ins, like Sumter attorney Mazie Ferguson and teacher Greg Snoad.
Unlikely write-ins also pop up on ballots. Analysis by the Charleston City Paper found some interesting write-in votes for statewide races in 2006.
Mickey Mouse was a frequent write-in for various offices, along with Fred Flintstone, Scooby-Doo, SpongeBob SquarePants, and Elmo. A Gamecock voted for Steve Spurrier, an Escape from New York fan voted for Snake Plissken, and a stormtrooper voted for Boba Fett. Musicians both dead (Bob Marley and Jerry Garcia) and alive (Jon Bon Jovi and Merle Haggard) popped up. The Lord and Bob Barker each got nods, and Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro also showed up on write-in lines. One voter even wrote in his Volkswagen's VIN number, and somebody else voted for "My Dick."
And then there's the other very real write-in threat to both DeMint and Greene: "None of the above."
Cooking metaphors we haven't used ... yet:
• Heating up the Senate kitchen
• A recipe for success
• Dupree stirs the pot while DeMint stews
• Dupree strains DeMint
• Dupree offering a pinch of progress
• Dupree — Bon Appétit!
• The pot thickens
• Hungry for change
• Appetite for earmarks
• Flavor added
• Just desserts
• "An empty stomach is not a good political adviser." (Albert Einstein)