THE BLOG
09/28/2010 03:55 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Pelosi's Budget Chairman Faces National Conservative Cash-O-Matic in Tight S.C. Congressional Race

The two colors streaking across the landscape of America's 2010 midterm elections usually run red and blue, but in South Carolina's 5th District, where 14-term Democratic House Budget Chairman John Spratt is in the fight for his life against a Tea Party-powered political newcomer, the color everyone is talking about these days is bright yellow.

Recently, caution-tape-colored signs reading "Sack Spratt" in red lettering have been splattered along roadways in the sprawling 14-county district like streaks of airdropped Napalm.

The political action committee responsible for the signs claims no affiliation with Spratt's opponent, first-term state senator Mick Mulvaney, although the man who says he paid for the 4,000 signs is listed as a member of Mulvaney's congressional campaign leadership team on the candidate's website.

Gardner Gore, of rural Sumter County near the heart of the state, also worked for Spratt's Republican opponent in 2006. He said over the phone on Sept. 27 that judging by the popularity of the signs he wishes he could print 4,000 more.

On stretches of the country highways that wind through the small towns in the district, several of the square yellow "Sack Spratt" placards can be seen riveted to Mulvaney barn signs against the backdrop of harvested cornfields.

Gore says attaching them to Mulvaney signs is political strategy.

"I think it's helped tremendously to get name recognition and who's running against who," Gore said.

Gore says he paid for some of the signs out of his pocket and charged others. He says some friends helped out with contributions. SackSpratt.com looks identical to the website of an obscure Virginia-based PAC called Conservatives for a Working America, an organization that has already spent $179,000 on TV attacks ads against Spratt, but Gore says someone helped him out with the site and doesn't know much about it.

That the anti-Spratt signs are a homegrown effort might be an anomaly in a race where the RNC, the NRCC and national conservative third-party groups have turned the 67-year-old Spratt into a high-profile target for a trophy takedown.

Call it the national conservative cash-O-matic.

Whether it's in the form of negative political signs, direct mailers or ominous TV attack ads, right-wing independent organizations have locked on the "Sack Spratt" smoke flares in the 5th District and announced their own presence with the subtly of an air raid.

"You could realistically say that these groups have spent between $750,000 and a million dollars," said Spratt's campaign manager Wilson Brown at a community festival in the small town of Indian Land on Sept. 25. He says he's seen estimates putting the number as high as $1.7 million.

"They're coming hard on us," Brown said. "As hard as they can."

And, they're coordinating.

FreedomWorks and other like-minded groups are working with Tea Party organizers in the area to help put out signs, said Republican National Committeeman Glenn McCall, who is also a county GOP chairman in Spratt's district.

"They're centralized in York County for the 5th District," McCall said about the groups shortly after a Sept. 17 speech by RNC Chairman Michael Steele at the University of South Carolina.

Steele was in the state as part of his cross-country "Fire Pelosi" bus tour. McCall had ridden on the bus with Steele through the district.

"They're coordinating," McCall said about the different groups working to oust Spratt. "They have a big walk coming up... in York County and across the 5th District handing out Mick Mulvaney literature. They're organized and I'm really impressed with the whole effort."

One person who isn't impressed is John Spratt.

Standing in the shade at the festival and dressed in a white Polo-style shirt, khakis and a baseball cap, Spratt said what's new about special-interest groups these days is that the Supreme Court has recently ruled they don't have to identify the source of their funding.

"So they adopt some kind of benign name - Citizens for Social Justice, you name it - it'll have some misleading name on it and you won't have a clue as to who it is who is really underwriting some campaign against your election," Spratt said. "In the case of my opponent, they're pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into his campaign and over time that constant bombardment does take a toll."

Spratt is talking about groups like the American Future Fund and Citizens For a Working America, both of which have spent over $100,000 apiece against him in the race.

Because of the murky nature of many of the groups involved - and the lengths they go to keep their efforts as undisclosed as possible - it's unclear exactly how much money is being spent against Spratt and from where that cash is originating. Observers must rely on individual anecdotes to fill in the blanks. But one thing is certain: it isn't coming from the Palmetto State.

The Iowa-based American Future Fund, for instance, has aired a 30-second TV attack ad against Spratt that cost $179,000, according to The Washington Examiner.

That paper also notes a $14,000 RNC expenditure for "media" against Spratt, a $15,000 tab for a survey and a $47,000 radio buy from the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

Meanwhile, another group, Citizens For a Working America PAC that is headquartered in Lancaster, Virginia, has also purchased anti-Spratt TV time in three media markets in the district, according to Brown who is kept abreast of ad buys because he also purchases airtime for Spratt. Brown said the group spent "close to $200,000."

When it comes to direct marketing, the Washington D.C.-based Americans for Prosperity - most notably profiled by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker as the brainchild of libertarian billionaire David Koch - has been bombing the district with a blizzard of anti-Spratt mail pieces.

And online perhaps the most ambitious organization involved in the 5th District race is Americans for Limited Government.

Based out of Fairfax, Virginia, ALG has been orchestrating a social media blitzkrieg against the Democratic incumbent with a website called SC5CodeRed.com at the center of the effort.

Over the coming months the group plans to build an "army of like-minded conservative volunteers in every county in our district" to deliver "code red" alerts and make sure voters head to the booths in November, according to its website.

In South Carolina, ALG is no stranger to controversy.

The founder of Americans for Limited Government, a wealthy northeastern real estate developer and anti-government financier named Howard Rich, became a household name during the 2006 and '08 Republican Palmetto State primaries when he funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars into local General Assembly races through various limited liability corporations to get around campaign finance disclosure laws.

A hardcore advocate of school vouchers legislation, Rich's tactics in the state made those affiliated with him divisive figures during recent election cycles and turned the vouchers issue into the third rail of South Carolina politics.

When Mick Mulvaney ran for the S.C. House in 2006, Rich donated several thousand dollars to his campaign through multiple LLCs. But by the time Mulavney was running for state senate two years later Rich had become such a campaign liability that Mulvaney pledged he wouldn't take any cash affiliated with him.

Now, as Mulvaney runs for Congress, Rich's Americans for Limited Government is taking aim at a much more prized opponent.

Palin-Gingrich-Armey

As third-party outside special interest groups offer widespread political cover for anti-Spratt movements in the 5th District, Mulvaney also finds himself benefiting from big names in the conservative galaxy when it comes to celebrity and political heft.

The 43-year-old attorney and real estate developer is one of the 20 congressional candidates nationwide that Sarah Palin is backing against Democrats who voted for national health care reform.

And earlier this month, former Republican U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich threw his weight behind Mulvaney when Gingrich appeared in South Carolina to hint at a possible 2012 run for president.

Also, a group called the South Carolina District 5 Patriots listed former Republican House Majority Leader and FreedomWorks chairman Dick Armey as a speaker at an August event.

Spratt's campaign manager Brown says the outside pressure isn't frustrating. They knew it would be coming in a so-called wave election year and outside groups would be getting involved. He mentions that Mulvaney put $200,000 of his own money into the race.

"He's got to have these outside special interest groups come in and help him out," Brown says.

Spratt himself admits it's hard to battle wholesale politics with a retail effort. His campaign has countered it by knocking on 11,000 doors and making over 63,000 phone calls.

"It's two different campaign tactics," Brown says.

Standing beside a tent for the Indian Land Republican Club at the Sept. 25 festival, Mulvaney offered his own take on how he's benefiting from the efforts.

He says party affiliation in the district is shallow, so those who might identify with conservative ideals or are frustrated with their government are gravitating toward the Tea Party movement.

"You go to a Republican club meeting in Lancaster County, you get 15 people," Mulvaney said. "You go to a Democrat meeting in Lancaster County, you get 15 people. You go a Tea Party meeting, they have 400 people."

He thinks the movement gets a bad rap in the press.

"They're just ordinary people," Mulvaney said. "And for the most part they're people who have not been involved in politics before."

The Messages

Mulvaney, who has only been in politics for four years, has said that the reason he's running against Spratt is because of the Democrat's vote on national health care reform. His latest TV ad hits on that. Spratt, he says, has changed.

"The John Spratt of 10 years ago, or four years ago, would have been the loudest voice today against what's happening in D.C. and he's just not saying anything," Mulvaney said.

For his part, Spratt denies the charge.

"Very simply I haven't changed," Spratt said. "I'm still the same person that was elected to office 28 years ago. I won the last election with 62 percent of the vote, so 62 percent of the people thought I was the same guy they voted for before."

Spratt says he's still a fiscal conservative.

"I'm the person in the Democratic caucus who has the most interest in balancing the budget and putting us on a sound conservative fiscal track," Spratt said.

Spratt's latest ad shows a map of the district and highlights countless areas where the congressman has created jobs. His campaign says after the ad started airing people called from several other places that didn't show up in the commercial but wanted to be in the next.

But in an area where every county suffers from double-digit unemployment, Mulvaney's message might be resonating whether the voters are actually hearing it or not simply because of national trends.

R.D. Sims, who works for the Lancaster County Sheriff's Office and was on duty at the festival, says he's long supported Spratt, but can't anymore.

"He's gone too far left for me now," Sims said.

A young child near the pony rides had just passed out, apparently from dehydration, and was laying on a stretcher on the back of an ATV. Sims took the time to talk about the race as medics attended to the boy.

Sims said Spratt has always been "moderate left." But he doesn't see that anymore. Sims remembers asking Spratt if he would promise not to vote for Pelosi as House speaker if she is re-elected.

"He didn't promise me that," Sims said.

The officer, who looked to be probably in his 50s, walked back to check on the boy.

"But I'm not going to vote for Mick Mulvaney," he said, when he returned. "I don't like him neither."

Asked why, Sims said the candidate appears too much like an opportunist.

"He ran for the South Carolina House, stayed one term; ran for the Senate, stayed one term; what are you going to do [in Congress] stay one term and run for president?" Sims asked rhetorically. "When he asked me for his vote for that first job he wasn't sincere. You see my point?"

It's something the Spratt campaign is hoping to capitalize on. They say no one knows where Mulvaney satnds on the issues beyond that he's against health care reform. They call him a hard-right libertarian radical in the mold of candidates like Sharon Angle in Nevada and Rand Paul in Kentucky. They say Mulaveny's hero is John Galt, the main character of the popular Ayn Rand novel Atlas Shrugged.

Mulvaney laughs at the references to Angle and Paul and shakes his head when confronted with them.

He says he doesn't self-identify as a libertarian and never said he has.

"We don't use labels in this campaign," Mulvaney said. "You ask the tea party people if they're libertarian, they have no idea what you're talking about."

Mulvaney would rather focus on his voting record in the General Assembly versus Spratt's in Congress even though he admits Spratt has beaten him up pretty bad over a handful of votes he cast such as eliminating funding for educational television, voting against retiring old school buses and for outsourcing jobs.

"That's fine," Mulvaney said. "That's fair play and that's what we want."

Regardless, Sims, the law-enforcement officer, says he's frustrated by both choices for Congress and might just leave this particular race alone when he votes or maybe write in somebody.

On the other hand, for David Wright, 40, a self-described conservative with a bookshelf stocked with Ayn Rand tomes and who grew up in the 5th District, Spratt's latest TV ad reinforces what he's always thought of Spratt regardless of the anti-Washington zeitgeist.

"John Spratt is good for his district," Wright said. "He actually serves his district how anyone would like to be served. He does stuff for people. He represents their interests with his clout. John Spratt is not going to not be re-elected by the people of Sumter who he's served all these years."