Jim Rex and Oscar Lovelace couldn’t have had better timing last month when they set up a booth at the State Fair to help gather the 10,000 signatures they needed to officially form a new political party in South Carolina they’re calling the American Party
. It was right during the government shutdown.
“People were riled up,” Rex says. “We had people lined up three deep. As soon as we said this is a petition drive to get a new option on the ballot — a different approach to politics — a lot of times that was all you had to say. Sometimes you’d follow up with a brief description, or as soon as you got to term limits, it was like ‘Where do I sign?’”
Rex believes the government shutdown clarified for many Americans that “we have these two warring parties that were more interested in the ideology in their respective bases back in their safe districts in order to be re-elected than they were in solving the problems of the average Americans.” He adds that a big question is whether those Americans have a long enough memory to hang onto such thoughts until the next election in 2014.
Rex is the state’s former education superintendent and the last Democrat to hold statewide office in the Palmetto State since he gave it up to run unsuccessfully for governor in 2010. Lovelace is a Republican who took 36 percent of the vote away from Mark Sanford in the 2006 GOP primary for governor. Disgusted with extreme partisanship on both sides of the aisle, the two are forming the moderate American Party in South Carolina. They hope to run a slate of third-party candidates for office up and down the ballot in 2014.
This week they hit their goal of 10,000 signatures — they gathered 5,000 at the State Fair alone — but they’re seeking a few thousand more petitions just to be sure before turning their list into the State Election Commission for certification.
In order to keep the momentum moving, American Party volunteers have been hitting college campuses around the state, preaching the party platform of term limits, moderate views devoid of social wedge issues, holding candidates and officeholders accountable for unethical behavior, and legislating from the middle.
At Winthrop University in Rock Hill, senior political science major Josh Demarest launched the Young American club after hearing one of Rex’s presentations about the American Party there. Demarest says the new group probably has a larger following than the campus Democratic and Republican clubs combined.
“We had over 50 students sign up in three days,” he says. “I don’t know about their members on the books, but their active members that come to meetings, that would be more than both them combined.” He adds as a caveat, however, that the Socialist Student Union club and the College Libertarians probably also have larger followings than the Republican or Democratic organizations on campus.
Demarest, who often wears an American Party shirt around campus and comes armed with a stack of stickers, took interest in the third party because it allows him to maintain his moderate ideals. And he says recent events have made his volunteer efforts for a third party easier.
“When the government shutdown started, it caught a lot of people, especially in my generation who haven’t really been around for anything like that, off guard,” he says. “And we were looking for more information, and both parties were doing nothing but pointing a finger at the other person. Nobody was taking any accountability.”
The college students that he’s spoken with, he says, are fed up.
“They’re ready for some accountability. They’re ready for people to realize that it’s more about doing what’s best for America than doing what’s best for your party, even if that means compromising on certain issues to get a budget passed,” he says.
The American Party’s message has also resonated with Katie Gash, a political science student at Charleston’s Trident Tech, who became a third-party volunteer after hearing Rex give a recent presentation at her college.
“I think it’s becoming more and more obvious that the two-party system just makes gridlock and it’s really inefficient,” she says, adding that the American Party spoke to her because of its moderate message.
“It seemed practical and realistic, that’s what appealed to me,” she says.
Rex and Lovelace started holding meetings about a new political party back in February. For a brief time it was called the Free Citizens Party, but they changed it because it seemed too libertarian sounding. Rex says the party will focus on offering quality candidates for 2014 and understands the perception of his new party will largely hinge on the credibility of prospects they put forward. He declined to mention any names this early in the process.
“We realize that we’re guilty until proven innocent,” he says.