It is hard to be a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in a state as deeply Republican as South Carolina.
It is harder when you have to brush back questions about whether your campaign is little more than an elaborate prank.
“Uhhh…”Jay Stamper, the man challenging Sen. Lindsey Graham, responded when the query was put to him directly in a phone interview last week. He paused for several seconds. “No. That would be the answer. I can’t imagine someone doing this as a prank. I don’t want to be one of those people who talks about how hard it is to run, but you don’t put this kind of effort into a prank. No. There is no…”
He trailed off again.
“I don’t know how else to explain it, but it is not.”
The concerns are legitimate, as Stamper, a Washington state-based entrepreneur, first came to national attention as a prankster, or “political performance artist,” as he and some allies more grandly called it at the time. But even that name, he now says, was a prank.
Ten years ago, Stamper and some friends registered the domain names of several prominent Republican lawmakers who had failed to grab their own URLs. So when constituents or the curious typed in say, www.PorterGoss.com, they were directed not to a site about the Florida Republican congressman and head of the House Intelligence Committee but a website for the National Association for the Advancement of White People, a white supremacist group founded by ex-Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. The names of nine Ohio state lawmakers were attached to sites promoting the legalization of cannibalism or to a site detailing how to turn breast milk into cheese; 12 Florida state senators found their names attached to a marijuana-growing website.
“We thought it was hilarious,” said Stamper. “And it was hilarious, to us. And to many other people. It wasn’t a serious political statement as much as it was just some guys having fun. It was the kind of stuff that college kids would do if they didn’t have a date on a Friday night.”
Stamper was, at the time, 31.
“Yeah, I matured a little late than most people,” he said.
Now he is gearing up to take on Graham, a lightning rod senator among both liberals and conservatives. For Democrats, Graham is a warmonger who leads the charge for military intervention in places such as Syria, Egypt, and Libya. For Republicans, he has been labeled an appeaser for his willingness to reach across the aisle on hot-button issues such as immigration reform and climate change. Graham won his last race by 15 points, but Stamper is not certain to face-off against him. In recent years, a number of South Carolina’s county Republican organizations have voted to censure Graham for his supposed apostasies, and he is facing three primary challengers, all perceived as more conservative than he is.
Concerns that Stamper’s candidacy is a joke are not entirely without precedent. In 2010, Alvin Greene, an unemployed military veteran, won the state’s low-turnout Democratic primary for a Senate seat. He was comically unprepared for the rigors of a general election, and his nomination left political observers scratching their heads.
“Well, the weather is fantastic,” he said, when asked how he decided on South Carolina. “I like humidity, which makes me unusual, an unusual person, but it also has seasons!”
But if Greene seemed unable to finish a sentence, Stamper seems unable to stop, often beginning his next sentence before he has finished the previous one:
“You know, there is a deep conservatism in South Carolina that Lindsey Graham doesn’t fit with, and that is the libertarian sort of conservatism that actually I am confident I can pick up a lot of conservatives who have a libertarian bent, with people who are upset about the NSA overreach. They are upset about the interventionism and they fall along the lines of Ron Paul or Rand Paul. I believe I can reach some of those people on the issues, even though we disagree fundamentally on a number of issues. I believe in protecting the social safety net, I believe in people paying their fair share in the top 1 percent, paying it forward, Elizabeth Warren, and from an economic perspective, I am a progressive. You don’t want to use that word in South Carolina, but I am.”
Stamper said he believes that people will “overlook my economically progressive beliefs because they agree with me on an issue that they consider more important, and that would be interventionism. I also believe, you know, I believe in interpreting the Constitution without a lot of flourishing. So I think that will be appealing to people. I don’t want to talk too much about it, because next thing you know I will have a primary challenger if I sell it too well.”
Stamper, as yet the only Democratic candidate announced for the seat, tried to launch into what sounded like an early version of his stump speech.
“We need nation-building here in the United States. We are building bridges in Egypt and doing all sorts of things but, for instance, in South Carolina, we have hundreds of structurally deficient bridges that need to be rebuilt, and of course, jobs that need to be brought here. And so basically, Lindsey, I say, we need some nation…”
He stopped himself and tried to drop in some data.
“In South Carolina, we are 43rd—in the 40s in everything. Forty-third in personal income. Forty-fourth in quality of health care. Forty-sixth in—what was the 46th we are in? You see, this is something you can never do on TV, but the numbers are all in the 40s, and of course those numbers differ depending on who you ask. Some people say we are last in education. I don’t know if that is true. It seems like Mississippi is always last in everything. And the only thing we are No. 1, the only list we are at the top of, is women killed by men. We have more men who kill women than any state in the country, and of course, Lindsey Graham voted against the Violence Against Women Act.”
But if Stamper sounds like a dyed-in-the-wool resident of the Palmetto State anguished over what has become of his home territory, he isn’t really. Stamper only moved to South Carolina in March, after living in the suburbs of Seattle for most of his life. His grandfather was a former president of Boeing, and Stamper founded a number of businesses in Washington, including one that helped companies incorporate in tax-free Delaware.
Stamper recently married and says he and his wife decided to start their lives together down South.
“Well, the weather is fantastic,” he said, when asked how he decided on South Carolina. “I like humidity, which makes me unusual, an unusual person, but it also has seasons! For someone who is interested in history, it is a wonderland. I mean, the whole Lowcountry is incredible. Charleston is one of the great cities in the U.S. still.
“It is hard to think of what has a better combination of all of these things. You kind of rule out by process of elimination, you know? Well, where do you want to live? North Carolina?” he said, as if the suggestion is absurd on its face. “Well, I mean, that is too cold for me, even in the summer. Florida? No, of course I don’t want to live in Florida. The people are also great. They are very friendly. You hear about Southern hospitality, and it is really true.”
But what those hospitable South Carolinians have not heard about is Jay Stamper. Phone calls to a number of top state operatives on both sides of the aisle were mostly met with silence.
“Zero. Nothing. I don’t know him at all,” said Don Fowler, a former state party chairman and a longtime Democratic political hand in South Carolina. “I can’t even recall his name. I think Lindsey Graham is going to win the Republican primary handily, and having said that, I think he is more vulnerable in the primary than in the general election.”
David Woodward, a political scientist at Clemson University and a Republican consultant, laughed out loud when asked about Stamper.
“Lindsey Graham is not a beloved figure at all,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that the people of South Carolina are going to vote for [Stamper].”
If you want to get your start in politics, South Carolina is a tough place to land. The state’s political culture is notoriously cutthroat—there is a reason, after all, that House of Cards’ Frank Underwood hails from the Palmetto State. In the show, Underwood’s chief aide is named Stamper, the candidate noted with glee.
“You have to have alligator skin,” he said. “But I think it’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of fun. There are important issues and there are important things to be done, but you know you got to be inspired to get up in the morning, and there is nothing like a political campaign to get your juices going.”
“It’s sort of like…I don’t know, it doesn’t…I am enjoying myself. I am really enjoying myself. And it should be fun!”
There are signs that the South Carolina Democratic Party is improving. The well-regarded leader of the state party is Jaime Harrison, a former top House aide who is seeking to instill a more rigorous vetting process to determine who gets the party’s nomination. Democrats have a decent chance of defeating Gov. Nikki Haley next year and are expected to run a tough race against the state’s other senator, Tim Scott, who is running in a special election in the same cycle.
Stamper has received support from the national netroots, who are helping him raise money, but says establishment Democrats in South Carolina and Washington are largely ignoring him.
“It is an ideological—no, not ideological, but I am an idealist still, and I think that I can win,” he said. “That is another component of why I am a running. I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t think I could win, and that is about it in terms of why I am running. If you think you can win something, if you think you can make a difference in a very big way and you think you have an actual chance of doing that, it is the classic moral compulsion to do something. You are morally compelled at that point to do something. I have never been involved in politics. I have never run for office. I feel like I can get it out of my system. You can only yell at the TV for so many years.”