The Impending Fall of J. Warren Tompkins
He was the Godfather.
One of the key behind-the-scenes architects of a South Carolina Republican revival that churned into power a decade ago with ruthless proficiency and a holier-than-thou swagger you had to be here to behold.
From then on, if you wanted to be governor or hold statewide office in South Carolina, you called Warren Tompkins. And if you wanted to be President, well, that meant winning South Carolina, which also meant calling Warren Tompkins.
Yet today, the one-time Palmetto powerbroker-in-chief looks over a changing political landscape yielding increasingly diminished returns for those would-be officeholders who seek out his services.
While still undeniably potent, the aura of invincibility that has surrounded Tompkins for the better part of three decades is slowly beginning to melt.
A convergence of social, institutional and political trends - each of them as irreversible as the conditions that precipitated the Tompkins' ascendancy - is gradually encroaching on the turf that this powerful operator has all but owned since the early 1980's. And although his influence will certainly continue to be felt on statewide elections and Presidential primaries in South Carolina for years to come, the days of political campaigns employing the "Warren Treatment" as a prelude to imminent victory are gone.
Among other factors, the conservative legacy of Tompkins' former boss - the late Gov. Carroll A. Campbell, Jr. - has been splintered into a thousand pieces, a rift cemented by Campbell's support of Gov. Mark Sanford four years ago against Tompkins' hand-picked candidate, then-Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler. Frustrated by Peeler's clumsy attacks against the fiscally-conservative, libertarian-leaning Sanford, Campbell's endorsement of the governor during the 2002 runoff played a major role in propelling him to a 60-40 thrashing of Peeler, the establishment choice for governor of Tompkins, social conservatives and the state Republican party.
As he was in 2002, Tompkins is back on the wrong side of the Campbell legacy again in 2006, supporting big-spending, status quo candidates like Bob Staton, Bill Cotty and Adam Taylor, three liberal Republicans who are about as close to Campbell's conservative roots as former Democratic governors Dick Riley and Jim Hodges. None of them have ever met a spending increase they didn't like, and all are violently opposed to long-overdue, market-based reforms to our state's last-in-the-nation public school system.
Tompkins' firm is also handling the State Treasurer's campaign of Sen. Greg Ryberg, a political chameleon who does everything he can publicly to ingratiate himself with the popular governor, but who many say routinely undercuts Sanford behind closed doors. For example, when Ryberg's primary opponent, former House Majority Leader Rick Quinn, began making inroads with Clemson University supporters (among Sanford's most influential budget antagonists), Ryberg was quick to attempt a suppression effort, making it known that he was "not beholden to the governor on Clemson vetoes," according to one Tiger-backer.
But beyond running state and local races for tax-and-spend Republicans, Tompkins' biggest problem is the accelerating freefall of perhaps the biggest tax-and-spend Republican of them all, President George W. Bush. Long touted as Tompkins' signature client, Bush's mid-30% approval ratings and declining Palmetto State support is eroding the same base the consultant has relied upon to carry mediocre campaigns (like Jim DeMint's successful-in-spite-of-itself 2004 Senate run) to victory. Simply put, the weaker Bush gets in South Carolina, the less clout Tompkins enjoys.
Bush's nadir also comes against a shifting demographic backdrop that spells even more long-term trouble for Tompkins. The religious right, Tompkins' go-to "shock troops" in 2000, are nowhere near as pervasive in GOP politics as they were six years ago, due in large part to new out-of-state arrivals here in South Carolina and recent economic downturns that focused voters' attention increasingly on a candidate's economic - not religious - credentials. The Christian Coalition as a political force in South Carolina is a shadow of its former influence, and a new breed of "pocketbook Republicans" (many of them social moderates from other regions of the country) is emerging as the dominant wing of the party's base.
Additionally, with a fifth of the electorate fast-forwarding through political ads on TiVo and a growing nucleus of younger voters embracing the blog phenomenon and other online innovations, it remains to be seen whether Tompkins' and his youthful army of subordinates can adapt to groundswell shifts in political mass messaging methodologies. So far, the answer is "no," as Tompkins' wanna-bes like Terry Sullivan, Jason Pulaski and Wesley Donahue have proven incapable of generating anything beyond poorly-written cookie cutter negativity aimed at the mid-level fears of a shrinking percentage of Republican voters.
Perhaps the "most unkindest cut of all" for Tompkins, however, is that he is now actively courting (and to some extent being courted) by Arizona Sen. John McCain, the man he brought down in 2000's bloodletting while working for the Bushies. And while McCain's perceived frontrunner status is largely a product of high name ID as opposed to concrete voter preference at this early stage of the 2008 campaign, the fact that Tompkins is meaningfully engaging his army's archenemy in any way, shape or form is the surest sign of all that the vaunted strategist is on a downward sloping path.
At the end of the day, a pill that bitter is unlikely to be swallowed unless no other recourse is available.
Despite all of this, Tompkins is by no means finished. Along with Richard Quinn and Rod Shealy, he is still firmly entrenched in the state's upper echelon of political consultants, where he is likely to stay for as long as he is still active in South Carolina politics. After all, a man who was on the payroll of anti-video poker crusader David Beasley and the video poker lobby ... at the same time (which Tompkins was during the late 1990's), is obviously pretty good at hedging his political calculations. His lobbying firm still has its fingers in innumerable government pies and his political consulting firm still boasts the state's largest client roster.
But with the top of the mountain having long ago been reached and a horde of pernicious, new impending realities poised to assail his former unassailability, there is literally nowhere for Tompkins to go from here but down.