The Senate election two years earlier in 2002 did not have a primary election because the South Carolina Republicans were more preoccupied with the gubernatorial contest, despite having the first open senate seat in 40 years. The retirement of Democratic Senator Fritz Hollings gave the Republicans an opportunity to pick up the seat and with no other interesting positions up for election in 2004, a crowded field developed in the Republican primary. Furthermore, the Republicans were motivated by having President Bush at the top of the ticket enabling them to ride his coattails to victory.
Former GovernorDavid Beasley, from the Pee Dee, entered the race and quickly emerged as the frontrunner because of his support from the evangelical voters. However, during his term as governor from 1994 to 1998 he had greatly angered the electorate by proposing to remove the Confederate Naval Jack from the dome of the statehouse and by being against the adoption of a state lottery to provide for college scholarships. Both positions led to the loss of his re-election in 1998 and the issues continued to trouble him in the Senate race.
The battle for second place in the primary was between Upstate congressman, Jim DeMint, and Charleston developer Thomas Ravenel. DeMint was able to squeak out a second-place finish because Charlie Condon, a former Attorney General of South Carolina, split the Lowcountry vote with Ravenel thus providing DeMint the margin he needed. In addition, while many voters were attracted to the Ravenel campaign and felt that he had a future in politics, they believed that he should set his sights on a less high-profile office first before trying to become senator. Resigned to defeat, Ravenel endorsed DeMint in the runoff election.
In the runoff election on June 22, 2004, DeMint scored a surprising victory over Beasley. Ravenel's endorsement of DeMint proved crucial as the Lowcountry counties heavily went for the Representative from the Upstate. Also, Beasley had burnt too many bridges while governor and was unable to increase his share of the vote in the runoff.
DeMint entered the general election campaign severely weakened from the primary fight, having spent most of his campaign funds. He stressed to the voters that he would follow conservative principles and provide an important Republican vote in the closely divided Senate. Democrats fared poorly in statewide elections in South Carolina, so Tenenbaum tried to make the race about issues rather than party identification. She attacked DeMint's support of the FairTax proposal because it would increase the sales tax by 23%. The election victory by DeMint merely cemented South Carolina's shift to the Republican column as the best candidate the Democrats could offer was soundly defeated by the typical 10 point margin.