On Tuesday June 10, 2008, something interesting happened here in South Carolina. For the first time in a long itme, an authentically populist conservative won a close race in a very important political primary.
Bob Conley is a virtual unknown who defeated an establishment candidate supported by the usual coterie of party insiders and special interest groups. The primary victory was narrow (1,058 votes) and the turnout was very low (only 17%), but nonetheless Conley, a conservative, observant Catholic from a blue-collar background, will be his party’s candidate for the U.S. Senate come November—as a Democrat.
“Flattop Bob,” as he is often called, would likely be the first to tell you that he was a long shot to win the Democratic nomination, as he is no conventional Democrat. Whereas his opponent, well-known lawyer and longtime party activist Michael Cone, was the safe and obvious establishment choice
Maverick Conley bolted the GOP a few years ago over amnesty, war and trade policy and was a vocal supporter of Ron Paul’s presidential bid.
Though his primary campaign was poorly covered by the media (a blessing in disguise), Conley represents a unique combination of dissident, anti-establishment themes running on the fringes of both major political parties and his candidacy is perhaps the best hope for putting a paleoconservative in the U.S. Senate this November.
While most of the grassroots conservative support in the Palmetto State was focused around former Republican National Committee member Buddy Witherspoon’s effort to defeat the pro-amnesty, McCain-enamored, Lindsey Graham, Conley was then, and remains now, the most consistent conservative in the race. Conley’s Buchananite views on trade and immigration are as tough as anything Witherspoon was offering, and his advocacy of sound money strikes a chord with many fiscal conservatives that would otherwise never give a Democrat a second look. It is also not unreasonable to assume that Conley’s traditional Catholic positions on abortion and gay marriage were contributing factors to his success.
Though Conley lacks the ground support that drives most populist insurgencies, the political realities on the ground in South Carolina are ripe for an underdog candidate of his ilk. In contrast to Conley, incumbent Lindsey Graham has elected to run as the moderate in the race. Graham’s attempt to marginalize his Democratic opponent as an extremist, ultraconservative is an odd tactic for a man who is regarded with contempt by a huge portion of the GOP’s base. In South Carolina, “moderate” is a dirty word and extreme is often seen as a synonym for principled. Graham’s positioning of himself as a centrist may have helped in a primary race where low turnout allowed for socially liberal retirees from the Northeast to wield a disproportionate amount of influence. In a general election race, where turnout is expected to be relatively high, this sort of tactic defies all logic. With Graham willfully contributing to the narrative of Conley as the race’s true conservative, the real issue will be securing the Democratic base.
On the surface, an overt opponent of multiculturalism would seem to be at a distinct disadvantage, but again the circumstances work in Mr. Conley’s favor. Conley’s trade position will likely be attractive in the upstate where the textile industry has been ravaged by outsourcing. The phony economic nationalism of John Edwards played well enough in his home region to give him one of his strongest showings in the primary season. Conley’s more authentic version is complimented by a cultural conservatism that Edwards lacked. While it’s not a lock, if a serious effort is made, the former engineer could sweep the region.
Perhaps the best news for the Conley campaign will be his presence on the same ballot line as Barack Obama. Though it is unlikely that a Democrat will win South Carolina in the presidential race, it was only a few months ago that Obama received more votes in the state’s Democratic primary than the top two Republican presidential candidates combined. In SC, thirty percent of the population is black, Obama’s appeal to them is undeniable and they unquestionably remain enthusiastic about electing one of their own. A record turnout of Democrats voting straight ticket would no doubt benefit Conley.
Though it may be tempting to write him off due to his lack of funds and organization, it’s worth noting the electoral upheaval that took place in Virginia just two years ago. While Jim Webb was not a political neophyte, he was an underdog, running against an establishment Republican in George Allen. Allen was viewed by many politicos as the best possible GOP candidate for president in 2008. Despite early polls that showed him far ahead of Webb, Allen lost in large part because of Webb’s ability to build a broad constituency around a variety of populist issues. Graham is an even more egregious symbol of unrepresentative government than Allen was, and Conley is in a much better position politically than Webb was.
The day after the primary race, a mutual friend sent me a message about his pal “Bob” who ran for the Democratic nomination and “accidentally” won.
Accidental or not, the unique candidacy of “Flattop Bob” Conley may be just what the doctor ordered for the second stage of The Revolution. A Democrat, in the cradle of secession, who asks that we help fight the neocons and advance “the cause of liberty” by supporting his candidacy. I like the sound of that.
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