Lee Atwater's Widow Running for Office in South Carolina

Lee Atwater's Widow Running for Office in South Carolina

The widow of the late Lee Atwater, the man who helped win the 1980 South Carolina presidential primary for Ronald Reagan en route to his nomination, is throwing her hat into the political ring nearly two decades after her legendary husband passed away. 

Lee pioneered the aggressive, bare-knuckles consulting that is commonplace in politics today. Now, Sally Atwater will run for South Carolina education chief.

According to The State, Sally Atwater “returned to South Carolina from Washington, D.C., two years ago to take a job teaching at Hendersonville Elementary School in Colleton County. The native of Union now lives in Charleston and has hired veteran S.C. Republican consultants Warren Tompkins and Luke Byars to run her campaign.”

“I love South Carolina,” Atwater told The State on Friday. “Washington has never been really home for me. I knew it was a good time in my life, and when I read (Republican Gov.) Nikki Haley’s new education reform initiative, I just thought: ‘This is the answer.'”

After playing a big role in helping Reagan win the South Carolina primary in 1980, Atwater, who loved to watch professional rasslin’, helped to make what would be the nation’s “First-in-the-South” primary as much of a spectacle and intriguing as WrestleMania. Sally Atwater’s consultant, Tompkins, was a part of many battles–and feuds–in South Carolina, with storylines that could have been ripped from WWF headlines. 

Lee Atwater also managed George H.W. Bush’s “successful 1988 presidential campaign against Michael Dukakis, overcoming a 17-point deficit to win the White House in a contest that saw the Democrat’s bid derailed, in part, by the controversial Willie Horton TV ad about a weekend furlough program for Massachusetts inmates.” Atwater, along with others, like Roger Ailes and top researcher Jim Pinkerton, managed to toughen up the patrician Bush, the elder, much to the chagrin of the Bush family, at times. He made the candidate who was running for Reagan’s third term a more populist figure than Dukakis, the son of Greek immigrants, who had become an effete and distant intellectual. (See: Bernard Shaw’s question about whether Dukakis would want the death penalty for someone who hypothetically raped and killed his wife.)

Atwater later became Chairman of the Republican National Committee (Mary Matalin was his chief of staff.) before dying “from a brain tumor in 1991, leaving his wife to raise their three daughters – then 10, 5 and 1.” 

President George W. Bush appointed Sally Atwater the “executive director of the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities, a position she held for the duration of Bush’s presidency. She also spent a year on Capitol Hill as a staffer for the House Education and Workforce committee.” Before, “Atwater, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Winthrop University,” taught in South Carolina’s public schools for nine years. When she moved to D.C., “she worked for the U.S. Department of Education under Reagan and later was appointed to advisory boards at the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institutes of Health.”

“I used to raise money for other people. I have kept in touch,” she said. “One thing I learned from Lee Atwater: Always keep in touch.”

At least three Republicans are vying for the nomination. Two Democrats are running, as well, for education chief. 

“I don’t think it can be any more challenging than raising three girls (alone),” Atwater said. “There is nothing that politics could do to me that life hasn’t already done.”