South Carolina Republicans have done their level best recently to make the state a laughingstock from Governor Mark Sanford's bizarre admission last year (after initially claiming he was hiking the Appalachian Trail) that he'd gone AWOL in Buenos Aires for a tango with his Argentine mistress to state senator Jake Knotts' racist remark last June that Indian-American gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley was a "raghead." So why aren't Palmetto State Democrats smiling? Because their most historically secure congressional seat one of only two they still hold in South Carolina is nevertheless in jeopardy of being taken from them in a Tea Partyfueled GOP challenge on Nov. 2.
The tight race for South Carolina's 5th Congressional District also has Democrats in a panic nationally. U.S. Representative John Spratt isn't just a 14-term incumbent; he's a key figure on Capitol Hill who chairs the House Budget Committee. Spratt is best known for leading the effort to balance the federal budget under President Clinton in the 1990s. But today, ironically, he's vulnerable to charges by his Republican opponent, state senator Mick Mulvaney, that he's an enabler of what conservatives especially the antigovernment, anti-incumbent Tea Party crowd call President Obama's profligate economic stimulus and health care bills. "The job that was Spratt's biggest political asset in the past now has him in a fight for his political life," says Clemson University political scientist Bruce Ransom. "He's climbing the rugged side of the mountain this time."
That's something Spratt, who won re-election in 2008 by 25 points, has rarely if ever had to do. Yale- and Oxford-educated, he's a conservative Democrat in a traditional Dixie district that hasn't sent a Republican to Congress since Reconstruction. But Spratt, 67, faces a trend of longer term than the Tea Party movement: affluent suburbanites and elderly retirees (many of them "halfbacks," Northern seniors who originally retired to Florida but are now returning halfway), most Republican-leaning, are pouring into South Carolina's 5th, which borders North Carolina and stretches from the bedroom communities of Charlotte, N.C., to the tobacco country east of Columbia, S.C.
Though the 5th has kept re-electing Spratt, it votes Republican today in state legislative and U.S. presidential elections. "The district is getting more conservative," says Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C. (part of the 5th), who moderated a Spratt-Mulvaney debate last month and says the race is too close to call. "And those new voters don't have much memory of John Spratt."
Meanwhile, Mulvaney, 43, a lawyer, restaurateur and developer from Indian Land, S.C., has positioned himself, in the fashion of Tea Party favorites like U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio in Florida, as an insurgent conservative boy wonder. At last month's debate, he hammered Spratt for supporting the health care legislation whose repeal he insisted is "the biggest thing we can do to keep the jobs we have now" as well as the stimulus. "There was a time," Mulvaney said to applause, "when my Congressman would have been the one to stand up to [U.S. House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi."
Spratt countered that one of the best ways to rebalance the federal budget was to get the wheezing U.S. economy kick-started again via efforts like the stimulus and health reform: "You can only balance the budget if you're moving in [that] direction." And thumbing his nose at the Tea Party's throw-the-bums-out mantra, he's stressing his experience over that of Mulvaney, who has spent less than four years in the state legislature. "These times," Spratt said at the debate, "call for leaders who are seasoned." Spratt's betting that the 5th is still Democratic enough to reject Tea Party radicalism. "What's interesting," says Huffmon, "is that both Mulvaney and Spratt see their chances for winning in the Tea Party Mulvaney tapping into its conservative anger and Spratt tapping into moderates wary of its extremism."
Either way, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is taking no chances, committing more than $1 million to Spratt ads. Much of it is expected to be directed at increasing turnout in the district's more Democratic and African-American western portion. The National Republican Campaign Committee, meanwhile, has made the South Carolina 5th one of 40 races to which it's disbursing $22 million in TV ad buys. Spratt, from York, S.C., has begun to question Mulvaney's conservative bona fides: in their debate, he asked why a free-market purist like Mulvaney sought $30 million in county government bonds to help develop commercial land he bought in the district property he then flipped for a big profit and which today still stands idle. (Mulvaney denies any impropriety.)
Spratt had a similar election scare in 1994 the last time a conservative wave swept Democrats out of Congress en masse and squeaked by. But back then, he was still expected to win; this time, most political monitors label the race a toss-up. So even if Republican pols keep embarrassing South Carolina, they could still end up having the last laugh.