7th District candidates agree that jobs is top issue

People who go to campaign appearances by 7th district Congressional candidates Tom Rice and Gloria Tinubu might think at first the two have the same speechwriter. Both list jobs as the No. 1 issue and both say that at least part of the solution is improving infrastructure to support new employers.

After that, though, it’s clear that one of the speakers is a Republican and the other a Democrat.

Rice, the Republican, says that cutting down on regulations is important, as businesses that have to jump through too many hoops to start up or expand will go to other countries where less is required.

Tinubu, the Democrat, talks about creating jobs as a drive toward full employment. And not just any jobs, she said. They need to be ones that pay a livable wage.

The newly-created 7th District is a conglomeration of eight counties that runs from Georgetown on the southeast end through Horry and Florence to Chesterfield at the northwest boundary. Four of the counties – Horry, Dillon, Marlboro and Chesterfield – form a large chunk of South Carolina’s border with North Carolina.

The new district was carved from the 1st District, where Horry and Georgetown used to reside, the 5th District and the 6th District. Florence and Marion counties formerly had been split between two Congressional districts.

Horry is the most populous and has the most registered voters of any county in the district. According to statistics from the 2010 census, unemployment in the counties ranged from 6.6 percent in Marion County to 9.6 percent in Darlington. The statistics showed that Horry had an unemployment rate of 7.7 percent based on the census count, while Georgetown County had a rate of 8.2 percent, a three-year estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Tinubu and Rice got to their November candidacies by virtue of primary runoffs. In those votes, Rice outpolled former S.C. Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer. Tinubu won her runoff against Preston Brittain, who forced the second round vote through a lawsuit over the first round.

Rice and Tinubu each implied the contest will literally be a race between now and election day.

“The pedal is on the metal from here on,” said Tinubu.

She said that full employment is one of three parts of the message she wants to get to potential voters. The others are the importance of supporting and fully-funding education and the need for affordable, accessible health care.

Betting on unions

Tinubu, a surprise to many in the S.C. Democratic establishment, is also pressing an unlikely message – touting unions.

During the Democratic National Convention, Tinubu advocated for unions as a way to provide livable wages for workers. The Coastal Carolina University teacher has received sizable contributions from unions and their members. And earlier this month, the Georgetown County native was endorsed by the S.C. Working Families Party, a third party started by labor unions.

Union advocacy is an unorthodox political tactic in South Carolina, which has one of the nation’s lowest unionization rates. Independent voters, a key voting bloc, are wary of the pro-union message.

And they are not the only ones.

Tinubu’s pro-union stance and liberal-leaning message perplex the state’s Democratic Party establishment. There are hopes she can win in November, but privately many have doubts about her chances when she goes toe-to-toe with Rice. Those Democrats question whether Tinubu, an African-American woman, can win enough crossover votes to carry the politically moderate district.

Tinubu’s camp stands by her campaign’s union advocacy.

“Gloria has to be true to her convictions,” said Robbin Shipp, Tinubu’s spokeswoman. “She is well aware of the fact that workplaces that are unionized bring a higher standard of living to their employees. And it is because of unions that employees have five-day work weeks and benefits and breaks during the working day. ... Just because there’s a low union presence doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing for South Carolina.”

But political scientists who track South Carolina don’t see union support as offering a viable path to victory.

“In the Pee Dee, the hospitality industry is not heavily organized. Neither is small manufacturing and farming,” said Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political scientist and pollster. “So putting a lot of her eggs into the union basket is unlikely to get votes in.”

Still, Tinubu’s dominating performance in June’s Democratic primary and runoff has raised expectations among her supporters.

“She had an awesome ground game in the primary,” said Sally Howard, former chairwoman of the Horry County Democratic Party and past president of the Democratic Women’s Council of Horry County.

“She turned out more than a minority vote. They organized retired union workers here and had good turnout of white voters as well,” Howard said. “I am encouraged ... she can attract some middle-of-the-road and independent voters in the general election.”

Tinubu said she learned in the primary how much voters care for the 7th District, a characteristic she emphasizes at each of her appearances.

Rice said he learned how important jobs are to 7th District voters.

Rice camp expects victory

While Tinubu reconciles with the state’s Democratic establishment, Rice is advocating for a smaller, less-intrusive federal government, an end to deficit spending and a federal requirement for a balanced budget.

“People are worried about the deficit,” he said, “but they’re more worried about jobs.”

Rice specifically pointed to the Affordable Health Act, the Dodd-Frank Bill and the Bush tax cuts as being issues he will work against or support in helping business to become more competitive.

“All those things have consequences,” he said.

Besides infrastructure, he said he will help to market the 7th District to potential employers by having an experienced economic developer on his staff.

His base of support is voter-rich Horry County, which has more registered voters than any other county in the district.

Rice, a retired lawyer and accountant, spent much of last week in Washington, raising money with another moderate Republican, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of Seneca.

Since June, he also has hired a couple of seasoned S.C. political hands to help with fundraising and campaign operations.

Internal polling shows Rice winning in November, said Walt Whetsell, a Rice campaign consultant.

“We have every indication that the district is as favorable to a Republican as it has ever been and very favorable to Tom Rice,” said Whetsell, who declined to share those polling numbers.

While not aligned with Tea Party Republicans, Rice is paying them attention, speaking last week to the Myrtle Beach Tea Party.

“He may be starting to get a sense of the frustration, anger and determination of the people who really understand how big of a crisis we are facing,” said Joe Dugan, chairman of the Myrtle Beach group, which advocates reducing the federal deficit and repealing health care reform. “But he has got a ways to go.”

Rice also has a secret weapon – Gov. Nikki Haley.

The Lexington Republican endorsed Rice and campaigned with him before the GOP primary, helping to put him over the top in a race that he had trailed in. Haley plans to get involved in local races again before November.

The (Columbia) State contributed to this report.