Nobody — least of all Rep. Henry Brown — could have guessed what an unholy shit storm he would unleash when he announced in January that he would not seek a sixth term representing the 1st Congressional District.
This is one of those stories that just gets weirder and weirder every week, and it is many weeks from being over. It is a story that demonstrates the pathology and futility of South Carolina politics as clearly as anything could.
Let's start with Brown himself, a professional politician with 25 years on the public payroll. It is hard to imagine a less remarkable, more mediocre man. During 10 years in Congress, he accomplished nothing memorable except to serve as a rubber stamp to George W. Bush's wars, tax cuts, and record budget deficits. If you could find 10 people on the street who recognized the name "Henry Brown" and asked them what they knew about him, the majority would probably recall that it was Brown who set a controlled burn on his farm in Berkeley County in 2004. The fire jumped the property line into the Francis Marion National Forest, burning 20 acres of public land. Brown then used his congressional muscle to squelch a National Forest Service fine.
In 2008, Brown won re-election with only 52 percent of the vote against Democrat Linda Ketner. The man was clearly vulnerable and had become a GOP liability. When the 74-year-old politician released a statement in January saying he wanted to get out of Washington and spend more time at his farm, it sounded plausible enough. Then all hell broke loose.
Republicans started coming out of the woodwork to make their bids for Brown's job. So far, 10 have declared their intentions, and, with another week to go before the filing deadline, there's still time for one or two more. (There are also three Democrats and one Independent Party candidate in the race.)
I will not name all of the hungry GOPers here. Let it suffice to say that I never heard of several of them, and half have never held public office. Three of them do bear mentioning, though. Carroll "Tumpy" Campbell is the son of the late GOP governor of the same name. Paul Thurmond is the son of the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond. And state Rep. Tim Scott enjoys the questionable distinction of being the first black Republican to sit in the General Assembly since Reconstruction. One of these three will almost certainly be our next congressman.
At the time of their announcements, several of the candidates made a point of saying their first priority would be to cut taxes. And most tried to claim the title of "true conservative" in the race.
Ah, yes. The true conservative. In this most conservative of states, the first thing a Republican must do is prove that he is more conservative than his rivals. He must demonstrate that he is angrier and more intolerant, more indifferent to suffering and injustice, more scornful of science and academe. He must prove that he loves Jesus, his wife, and Ronald Reagan, and he must do it all while paying homage to the Second Amendment and the power of the free market.
Of course, the danger for the true conservative is that enthusiasm might overwhelm judgment. That's apparently what happened a few weeks ago when gubernatorial candidate Andre Bauer — in an effort to demonstrate that he despised poor people more than his GOP rivals — compared the poor to stray animals. It is notable that, while nobody in his Republican audience objected to the remark, Bauer was called out and ridiculed from sea to shining sea. Within days he was apologizing and explaining and receiving special recognition on The Daily Show.
Now imagine what 10 Republicans are going to do when turned loose in the same pen leading up to the June primary. Ten desperate GOPers, each trying to be more conservative than the others, each edging farther and farther to the right, trying not to fall off the edge like brother Andre. One of them is sure to say something really stupid, really offensive. What will it be? A call for mandatory school prayer? A call to execute homosexuals? Whatever, we've got 10 weeks to watch and wait, as the late-night comics anticipate more manna from South Carolina.
And in the latest twist, Henry Brown, the man who set this round of musical chairs in motion, declared recently that he is running for the job of supervisor of Berkeley County against his old friend Dan Davis. Apparently Henry wasn't so eager to retire after all.
Which leads us to wonder who may have put the screws to him to leave Washington. Regardless, it's going to be another ugly GOP race in a really weird year.