Sure, the fake CNN news alert sent out Friday claiming Newt Gingrich forced his ex-wife to have an abortion has drawn attention, but by South Carolina’s famously low standards it hardly stands out. While the Palmetto State was the last in the country to fully embrace representative democracy (not even allowing voters to cast a ballot for presidential candidates in a general election until after the Civil War), it has since embraced American politics in all its colorful and often dark aspects.
The modern history of South Carolina smears carries the deep influence of famed political consultant Lee Atwater, who later managed George H.W. Bush’s successful presidential campaign in 1988. (Two words: Willie Horton). Even adversaries tipped their hats. “Atwater was the master,” said former South Carolina Democratic Party chair Dick Harpootlian.
Atwater first made his mark in 1978 running the congressional campaign of Republican Carroll Campbell for an open seat in Upstate South Caroling. Campbell was running against the popular mayor of Greenville, Max Heller. An Austrian refugee from the Nazis who had managed to make his way to Greenville, Heller had become a civic pillar, and was widely credited as mayor for revitalizing the city’s downtown. However, unlike most residents of devoutly Protestant district, Heller was Jewish—and Atwater attacked. He used a third-party spoiler candidate in the race, Don Sprouse, as an anti-Semitic stalking horse. Sprouse held a well-publicized press conference attacking Heller, stating “I believe in Jesus Christ, I believe he died to save my sins. Mr. Heller does not.” There were also push polls, asking voters if they would vote for a candidate who was “a Jew who did not believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Campbell won.
Two years later, Atwater would use similar attacks to go after Tom Turnipseed, a popular Democratic state senator trying to unseat an incumbent Republican congressman, Floyd Spence. Turnipseed was an earnest, charismatic liberal who was also a reformed George Wallace acolyte. However, in his earnest effort to end the stigma of mental illness, the Democrat had previously disclosed that he had been treated for depression with shock therapy as a young man. Atwater planted questions about this with reporters. When Turnipseed’s campaign expressed its outrage about this, Atwater indignantly refused to respond to the accusations of someone “who had been hooked up to jumper cables.” The line stuck and Tom Turnipseed became forever associated with “jumper cables.”
While Lee Atwater died of cancer in 1991, his brand of dirty tricks has survived him in South Carolina politics. Perhaps its most infamous iteration was in the 2000 Republican presidential primary, when Senator John McCain, fresh off his victory in New Hampshire, was subjected to a barrage of below-the-belt attacks from sources associated with George W. Bush’s campaign.
There were smears floating around the state that, as a result of his time as a prisoner of war, McCain had become a “Manchurian candidate,” that his wife was a drug addict and that McCain was a homosexual. But the most well-known and most damaging was that McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child. (In fact, McCain has an adopted Bangladeshi daughter, Bridget.) There were push polls asking voters “Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?” It was an appeal aimed not just at undermining McCain’s moral standing but played on the racial politics of the almost all-white Republican voters in the deeply segregated state that had consistently elected Strom Thurmond.
It worked. McCain lost in South Carolina and never again regained his momentum.
Just two years ago, dirty tricks defined the 2010 South Carolina primary for the Republican nomination for Governor. Several weeks before Election Day, State Representative Nikki Haley, a married mother of two, had managed to pull ahead of her other three competitors to take the lead in a tight four-way race. Then, two weeks before the election, Will Folks, a Republican political consultant and former spokesman for then-Governor Mark Sanford (of Argentinean mistress fame), claimed that he had had an affair with Haley. Folks maintained that he was supporting Haley and merely revealed the affair as a pre-emptive step to avoid a more damaging attack. However, he soon changed tone and starting posting what he claimed was proof of the affair including an exchange of messages with the campaign.
Haley’s campaign immediately responded by claiming it was typical South Carolina dirty tricks but the picture soon became more confused when another political consultant, Larry Marchant, claimed he’d also had a one-night stand with the gubernatorial hopeful. Unlike Folks, who was Haley’s contemporary, Marchant was a much older man with a bad spray tan and a worse toupee who lispingly asserted “we had sex” in a television interview. The result turned an apparently clear-cut sex scandal into confusion. Haley ended up winning the Republican primary by a far larger margin than expected and became the first female governor of the state in November.
As perverse as this cavalcade of slander and rumor-mongering may seem it is still an advancement for South Carolina politics. Considering that South Carolina’s elected officials have on several occasions in the past participated in violent fights on the floor of Congress, negative campaigns have been a step forward in its political culture. In 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina ambushed Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner at his desk and subjected him to a savage attack with a cane. Further, there was intra-delegation strike in a 1902 incident when the senior senator from the state, “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman (who gained his name from an election promise to stick the aforementioned pitchfork into President Cleveland) jumped the junior senator, John McLaurin, on the Senate floor.
The bar has been set low enough in South Carolina that if the “false CNN alert” sent today (and a phony follow-up received by some Gingrich supporters with their candidate “admitting” the made-up claims) is the worst of it, it would, sadly, mark a step forward through the moral quagmire of South Carolina politics.