COLUMBIA, S.C. – For decades the backbone of South Carolina's economy, the textile industry could always be counted on to provide plenty of jobs and a solid bloc of votes for the Republican Party.
Blaming GOP free-trade policies for the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, textile leaders are now doing what was once unthinkable — rallying behind a Democrat for the U.S. Senate.
"There's a lot of Republicans up here who would struggle to vote for a Democrat," said Carl Lehner, head of Leigh Fibers in Spartanburg and a former Republican supporter. "But in the textile industry, there's a number of us who are finding it much easier this election."
That is not only because Democrat Inez Tenenbaum (search) takes a more protectionist stance on trade. It is also because she is not Republican Rep. Jim DeMint (search), who infuriated the textile industry by voting consistently for free-trade policies that have been blamed for a flood of cheap imports and the flight of jobs to countries where labor is cheaper.
Since 2001, South Carolina has lost more than 57,000 manufacturing jobs.
Most polls show DeMint leading the race, but Tenenbaum, South Carolina's education superintendent, insists she can win with a campaign that has become a referendum on the survival of the state's manufacturing economy. The winner will succeed Democrat Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, one of five Southern senators leaving office this year.
Textile industry leaders have so far contributed $100,000 to Tenenbaum's campaign, and an industry lobbying group has put up billboards across South Carolina that read: "Lost Your Job to `Free Trade' and Offshoring Yet? Register. Vote."
Textile leaders say they welcome trade competition, but on a level playing field. They have lobbied lawmakers to close all import loopholes, keep tariffs and duties at their current levels, use only U.S. companies for defense and security contracts, and strictly enforce safeguards against growing imports from China.
Some observers question whether textile's political change of heart will make any difference in the race. The economy of the Carolinas has diversified into high technology and tourism, and the glory days of textile barons as kingmakers are long past.
"They have moved to Democrats almost out of desperation, things are so bad," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "It's important, but it's not as important as it once was, because this is a shrunken force."
Also, South Carolina is still a Republican stronghold. The GOP controls most state offices, and President Bush posted a nearly 16-point victory over Al Gore in 2000. Even though Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards is a native of a South Carolina — and the son of a textile millworker — Bush is expected to win big here again.
Tenenbaum and DeMint have opposing views on trade.
Tenenbaum has called for a moratorium on new trade policies until their long-term effects can be studied, and she has made it clear she would oppose an upcoming free-trade agreement involving Central American countries.
DeMint is unapologetic about his support of free trade, saying it is the only way to create jobs that keep the state competitive in the global marketplace.
He has tried to tame the issue in recent weeks by pointing out that jobs in the state were lost to the recession and increased business efficiency. He says free trade helped South Carolina's exports grow 22 percent in 2003. He also points to a BMW plant near Greer, S.C., as evidence of the positive side of global trade. About 4,700 employees turn out luxury automobiles at the plant.
In North Carolina, the trade issue is more muddled in the Senate race between Democrat Erkskine Bowles — a former Clinton chief of staff — and Republican Rep. Richard Burr. Both candidates supported the North American Free Trade Agreement when it took effect 10 years ago.
But since then, they have carved out more restrictive views on trade that take into account the nearly 163,000 manufacturing jobs that have been lost in North Carolina since 2001, mostly in the textile and furniture industries.
Bowles, whose wife runs a bedding and drapery company, has received more than $100,000 from the textile industry.
Economists say that despite the campaign rhetoric, there may be little anyone can do to restore a textile and clothing industry that has hemorrhaged 860,000 jobs nationwide over the past decade.
"Unless the Democratic candidates really believe that they are going to roll back existing free-trade commitments, that's not going to change," said Roland Stephen, an associate professor at North Carolina State University.