January 27, 2008

Son of Seneca: John Edwards

In last night's South Carolina Democratic Primary, Edwards won one county squarely--Oconee County. He was born in Seneca, the main town in Oconee County.

Of all the "bellwether" districts to watch on Election Night, hometown counties are the most interesting to watch to me, especially if the candidate has deep roots. In Edwards' case, he features his Seneca-to-the-U.S. Senate story in his recent book, Home: The Blueprint of Our Lives. While he has moved rhetorically beyond the "son of a millworker" story, he often brings his parents with him on the campaign trail and the Edwards for President website includes photos of his childhood home in The Palmetto State. He has mentioned Bruce Springsteen's "My Hometown" as one of his favorite songs.

Pundits have described his defeat in South Carolina as a setback for his populist, rags-to-riches biography and his poverty-fighting cause. It's easy to dismiss Oconee as the "hometown crowd."

But I think looking back at Lawton Chiles' defeat in Polk County in his 1994 gubernatorial re-election campaign lends dignity to Edwards' situation. Governor Chiles lost his home county for the first time in 1994. The newcomers to Lakeland, Winter Haven, and Auburndale might not have remembered his days in the state legislature, but after 36 years in public service, they surely knew his name. The straw poll in Lakeland, organized by the town Chamber of Commerce, put Imperial Polk on the mainstream media bandstand. And losing the straw poll and then the entire county in November affected Chiles.

I think we must imagine Edwards happy. In his hometown are friends and family who lost their jobs when the textile mills closed, comforted him after Wade's death, helped open "Edwards for U.S. Senate" offices next door in North Carolina, knocked on doors for him in 2004, comforted him when Elizabeth found cancer, and knocked on doors for him yesterday. I doubt things have changed much in Seneca. It's far away from I-95 and Myrtle Beach. Its best economic days are behind it, and that's the source of his fame. But Edwards knows where he came from, and so does Oconee County.

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