Although Linda Ketner planned to skip this election cycle, the 2008 congressional candidate still expected to stay involved in the political process. After a close race with Republican incumbent Henry Brown, the Charleston businesswoman was still seeking change in Washington.
"My dream is to start a citizens movement that demands some accountability from our elected representatives," she told the City Paper last June.
Now, a citizens movement is rising up to draft Ketner for an independent run in November against arch-conservative Sen. Jim DeMint and awkward political novice Alvin Greene.
The Senate race made national headlines after Greene, the unknown, unemployed veteran who did no campaigning, beat Charleston County Councilman Vic Rawl in the Democratic Primary. Party insiders are worried about Greene's viability after several painfully uncomfortable performances during national interviews, his curious absence on the campaign trail, and a felony charge for showing a college student a pornographic picture on a library computer.
For better or worse, he's the Democratic candidate, and that's got some voters looking for an electable alternative to DeMint, who continues to head to the far right while dragging South Carolina with him. Doug Warner, a volunteer for Ketner's 2008 race, has so far drafted 85 volunteers to collect the 10,000 signatures needed to get Ketner's name on the ballot in November.
"This is a grassroots effort of everybody in the center," he says.
Ketner ran on a platform to shake up Washington two years ago, focusing on regulatory reform and new energy alternatives. She spent a lot of time connecting with constituents along the coast, particularly skeptical moderates. Ketner won over a majority of Charleston County voters but lost in the rest of the district. Her close race prompted raised eyebrows in Washington and South Carolina regarding the newly competitive nature of the 1st District, and it prompted Republicans in Brown's own party to call for his retirement in 2010.
"She did a very good job showing herself as an independent decision maker," says College of Charleston political science professor Jeri Cabot. "But it's such an uphill battle against DeMint."
Ketner tells the City Paper that she's not ready to comment on the petition campaign. When Warner approached her with the idea last week, he says that he told her she didn't have to make up her mind yet.
"We said, 'Let us show you what kind of grassroots support is out there,'" he says.
The new twist in the U.S. Senate race is certain to catch national attention, especially after the high-profile coverage surrounding Greene's surprise win. Independent races are typically a long shot for any candidate, but there are more than enough frustrated voters to go around, from those Republicans scared of DeMint to those Democrats grieving over Greene.
It's suspected that many Democratic Primary voters picked Greene because they didn't know either candidate and would likely make a different choice now. Meanwhile, DeMint faced limited opposition from his primary opponent, relative unknown Susan Gaddy, but she still managed to take 70,000 GOP primary votes against the well-heeled incumbent. And there's a large percentage of voters who haven't placed a vote yet.
"But I'm not convinced enough of them are out there," Cabot says.
And then there's the financial hurdle. DeMint has more than $3 million in campaign cash. Ketner would be running with no support from the state Democratic Party or the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Likewise, PAC and special interest money is likely out of the question. Yet, for a candidate like Ketner, who wanted to chase the special interests out of Washington, this might just be the opportunity she needs.
Likewise, political attacks in DeMint's arsenal may backfire. The junior senator has an affinity for anti-gay rhetoric, saying in 2004 that gay people shouldn't be allowed to teach and telling a Bloomberg reporter last year that he cringed at the thought of a gay president.
"It would be bothersome to me just personally because I consider it immoral," he said.
The openly gay Ketner has been a leader on LGBT issues in the Charleston community for more than a decade, creating the nonprofit Alliance for Full Acceptance, a group focusing on local advocacy for gay rights through educational outreach and innovative media campaigns.
That said, DeMint is still an incumbent Republican in a red state. He may take Ketner's challenge more seriously than that of his other opponents, Greene and Green Party candidate Tom Clements, but he'll likely still spend the majority of his time campaigning for his conservative candidates in Kansas, Florida, and elsewhere across the country, as he has done throughout this election cycle.
But, Cabot notes, "The rule of thumb is that you never ignore a race completely. Just look at what happened to Vic Rawl."
Ironically, Ketner showed some frustration last year at voters who she felt weren't paying enough attention to their elected officials. "People aren't listening," she told us. "The world is more complicated than it's ever been. It feels like a trick that we're less questioning now than we've ever been. ... The more I learned in running, the more upset I got about what was happening in government. I'm trying to let people look at it and dig a little deeper."
There was never a question about whether Ketner would step back into the ring. We asked her last year if she was worried a Democrat could win the Congressional race in 2010 and steal her opportunity at the seat.
"I figure there's an office somewhere with my name on it," she said.
Ketner may prove that point in 2010, just a little earlier than she'd imagined.
For more info on the grassroots effort, go to ketnerforsenate.com.