Now national Democrats think they've found the candidate with the best shot at unseating the first term Republican: Chad McGowan, a 38-year-old trial lawyer from conservative York County who officially announced his candidacy on Monday.
Said one Democratic leadership aide in Washington: "Is DeMint more vulnerable than [Richard] Burr or David [Vitter]? Probably not. But McGowan is a self-funder and from the right part of the state. He could give a Republican a run for his money."
McGowan said in an interview with CNN that South Carolina "can do better" than DeMint, but he refrained from any outright attacks against the Republican on the day he jumped in the race. "I don't want to get into bashing any sitting senators at this point," he said. "These races are marathons. I'll just try to keep it positive for now."
DeMint has nearly $3 million in the bank for his campaign, not to mention a loyal network of conservative activists in South Carolina and nationwide willing to support him. McGowan wouldn't say if he plans to contribute his own money to pay for the campaign, but promised to raise "whatever it takes" to win. The last competitive statewide campaign in South Carolina - the 2002 governor's race between Mark Sanford and Jim Hodges - cost more than $12 million.
McGowan said he was registered as a Republican in North Carolina before he moved to South Carolina in 2003, where party identification is not required, and said he has voted for a mix of Republicans and Democrats over the years. "I have always tended towards the person and not the party," he said. "I've never voted straight party in anything."
He told CNN he cast his ballot for Republican Lindsey Graham in 2008 and even chose to vote in the state's GOP presidential primary last January instead of the Democratic contest. He voted for John McCain in that primary, he said, because he was the "least objectionable" Republican, and he viewed a vote for McCain as "a hedge against extremists that I saw at the time" seeking for the GOP nomination. But McGowan voted in favor of Barack Obama last November, and for John Kerry in 2004.
He ultimately descibes himself as a "populist" who will fight for the middle class against special interests, a message he thinks will resonate in 2010 despite predictions that Democrats could face a strong headwind in the mid-terms. "This is not going to be about running for or against the president, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid," he said. "Some have characterized that as the as evil triumvirate. This is not about that. This is about South Carolina."
McGowan, a medical malpractice attorney, said tort reform should not be a required element of federal health care legislation because South Carolina has already enacted meaningful reforms, although he said "it's not a perfect system." McGowan also said he supports a health care bill "with or without a public option" as long as the final bill drives down costs, helps small businesses and prevents insurance companies from denying coverage.
But McGowan also holds positions that might be considered out of step with other Democrats. On immigration reform - one of DeMint's pet topics - he said law enforcement should focus on businesses that employ illegal immigrants instead of just cracking down on immigrants themselves. But he said illegal immigrants shouldn't be granted an automatic pathway to citizenship. "If you're here illegally you need to home and get in line and come back through normal legal channels," he said.
Calling it part of his southern upbringing, the Democrat described himself as "a gun person."
"I think gun control is being able to hit what you're aiming at," he said.
Another Democrat, former auto executive Mike Ruckes, is also seeking the party's nomination for the Senate seat.