There was a time when Dick Harpootlian was the SCGOP's worst nightmare. A tough-talking, bare-knucked politico, he inflicted major damage upon Palmetto State Republicans during his tenure as state Democratic Chair in the late 1990s - a role so legendary that they asked him to come back for a return engagement, hoping to bring back his old political magic and inflict more pain upon Republicans.
But judging by how he's trying - and failing - to keep Richland County Democrats from abandoning his efforts to topple GOP Senate President Pro Tem John Courson from his Richland County Senate District, it seems like Harpootlian has lost his magic touch.
Courson had already attracted the support of several Richland County Democrats, most notably Senator Darrell Jackson and Sheriff Leon Lott, but Thursday's announcement by a number of key Democrats who were endorsing Courson greatly bolstered the ranks and credibility of the Senate leader's crossover political support: State Senator Joel Lourie, State Rep. Jimmy Bales, Columbia City Councilman Cameron Runyan, Richland County Councilman Norman Jackson and former Richland Council chairman Tony Mizzell. Unable to keep the county's large contingent of Democrats unified behind Courson's challenger, Harpootlian opted for fire more attacks at those crossing over to support Courson.
Upset by Harpootlian's attack of Sheriff Lott, Senator Lourie suggested Harpootlian's political career was nearing its end while at Thursday's press conference:
There is a growing consensus that probably when the elections are over and the smoke clears, I think both rank-and-file Democrats and (the chairman) will think that, you know, that maybe it’s time to bring in a new chairman.
Harpootlian fired back at Lourie, as well as Senator Darrell Jackson, who had endorsed Courson earlier in the year:
So two guys appear at a press conference, endorse a Republican senator for re-election and they want to tell the Democrats of this state who their chairman ought to be? I’m sorry, this is Col. Sanders trying to preach to the chickens.
This exchange between Lourie and Harpootlian seems somewhat ironic considering the history between the two. When Lourie started his political career in 1998 during Harpootlian's previous tenure as Chair, Harpootlian was given credit for playing a key role in Lourie's upset of incumbent GOP Rep. Joe McMaster, the brother of then-SCGOP Chair Henry McMaster, for the Forest Acres-area House seat now held by Republican Joan Brady, who moved into the seat after Lourie climbed the ladder to flip control of a long-time Republican Senate district.
Now Lourie seems to be joining the ranks of those ready to help show Harpootlian the political door - but given the way Harpootlian attacked him for doing what he thought right (Lourie has always impressed us to be a pretty straight-up guy, so we don't doubt the sincerity of the endorsement), who could blame Lourie for having a change of heart?
Odds are the growing in-fighting between Harpootlian and Democrats who aren't backing his candidates are only serving to help Courson by drawing attention to the endorsements and away from Courson's opponent. But if that's the case, Harpootlian either doesn't realize it or is too mad to care.
Many Democrats turned to Harpootlian to return to the role of state Chair, hoping for a repeat of his 1998 performance, where Democrats knocked out then-Governor David Beasley, took back two Constitutional offices and cut the GOP's House majority in half. Instead, the Democrats struggle to keep the GOP from gaining legislative super-majorities that would make them virtually irrelevant.
But instead of the master strategy and hard-edged politicking of years past, Harpootlian seems to have based this election year's strategy upon taking the low road of seeking to knock out GOP candidates through lawsuits and the even lower road of attacking his own when they don't toe the line.
It's not the same old Dick Harpootlian.