"Sorry for the delay, Jim," Bob Conley apologizes after calling just five minutes later than expected. "I've been running around like a one-armed paper hanger." Not the ordinary opening line from a politician, let alone a major candidate for U.S. Senate. But "Flat-top Bob," as his friends call him, isn't your ordinary politician.
Conley, a 42-year-old engineer from North Myrtle Beach, unexpectedly became South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham's Democratic challenger, winning the primary by just 1,058 votes out of more than 147,000 cast. Yet he plans to run as the more conservative candidate in the general election against the man some have called the worst Republican senator. Conley's vanquished primary opponent lamented, "We've nominated a Republican in a Democratic primary."
In fact, Conley ran as a Republican for the Indiana state legislature in 2000, then bolted for the Reform Party as it nominated Pat Buchanan for president, and returned to the fold to support Ron Paul's presidential campaign. He voted for Paul in South Carolina's GOP primary in January and resigned his position on the Horry County Republican Party executive committee in February. He opposes abortion, same-sex marriage, gun control, and amnesty for illegal immigrants, repeatedly referring to the incumbent senator as "Grahamnesty." He repeats his line, "Pitchfork Pat plus Dr. No equals Flat-top Bob," concluding, "Sounds good to me!"
Even Senator Graham admits his challenger is to his right. According to the Charleston City Paper, he said, "From what I can tell, he doesn't represent moderation. I represent a brand of conservatism that you will feel comfortable with."
CONLEY IS HOPING to pull off another unexpected victory in November by gathering together disaffected anti-Graham conservatives, blue-collar voters worried about illegal immigrants coming and textile jobs going, and African-Americans mobilized by Barack Obama's Democratic presidential campaign. "It's going to be the most interesting, probably most diverse coalition in the country," he says. Immigration, trade, energy independence, Iraq, and getting rid of corporate welfare will be his major issues. "That's the meat and potatoes," says Conley. "We can get to the peas and the carrots and dessert later."
Asked why Graham's GOP primary challenger, former Republican National Committeeman Buddy Witherspoon, didn't do better, Conley replies, "The man was outspent 9-to-1 and still got a third of the vote! Buddy's a super guy who wanted to make sure Lindsey Graham didn't get a free pass and he did a great job with the resources he had. I take my hat off to him."
Resources will be a problem for Conley as well. He raised less than $12,000 by the end of May and had $961 on hand, though he's replenished the coffers somewhat since. Graham raised $8.8 million and had $4.5 million on hand. "I don't need to have parity with him," Conley argues. "We'll raise enough to run a viable campaign. [Montana Sen.] Jon Tester was outspent 2-to-1. [North Carolina Congressman] Heath Shuler was outspent 2-to-1."
Shuler's name comes up again when I point out that conservative Democrats are often anything but once elected. "That's not true," he protests. "Look at Heath Shuler, Brad Ellsworth, Joe Donnelly's voted pro-life, Gene Taylor. The old Democrat is the new Democrat."
The next Zell Miller Conley is not, however. He's no fan of President Bush or the "goose-stepping, rubberstamping Republicans in Congress." Conley is a strong civil libertarian, opposing the FISA reauthorization and the Patriot Act, and wants to end the war in Iraq. "Occupation," he corrects me. If, as Pat Buchanan quips, John McCain "is running on a platform that says your jobs are not coming back, the illegals are not going home, but we are going to have more wars," Conley is the anti-McCain.
"Not Senor McCain!" Conley unsurprisingly answers when asked who he will endorse for president, bringing up the immigration issue. So is he an Obamacon? "He's running for president, I'm running for Senate," Conley demurs. "Those are two completely separate races."
Flat-top Bob's inability to embrace either of the major party presidential candidates is a sign of his ideological quirkiness, just as surely as his penchant for invoking both William Jennings Bryan and the leading congressional proponent of the gold standard. He's an underdog and his attempt to build an underfunded, unusual left-right coalition to unseat Lindsey Graham has to be considered a longshot. But Conley isn't deterred. "This is going to be the most interesting race in the country," he predicts. "You just watch."