Scorched-Earth Final Stretch In Democratic House Budget Chairman's S.C. Re-election Bid

10/25/2010 01:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It was sometime after Christmas when President Barack Obama invited John Spratt, the chairman of the Democratic administration's House Budget Committee, into the Oval Office to talk about something.

Spratt, 67, and the dean of South Carolina's congressional delegation, had been representing the Palmetto State's 5th District for nearly 30 years. Across the country a handful of his Democratic colleagues were retiring. Some wanted to pursue other opportunities. Perhaps they would spend more time with their families. And of course there was that unpredictable current of Tea Party electricity coursing through the American electorate.

It was around that time of year again; Spratt would have to make the decision about whether or not he was going to run for re-election.

In the Oval Office, Obama told the congressman he understood he was thinking about not running. He said he'd like to encourage him to do so.

"Well, I certainly haven't made a decision," Spratt recalls saying to the president. He told him he had Parkinson's disease. Obama remarked that he'd noticed it when he came in. He said that it didn't matter: It hadn't affected Spratt's work with him or the administration.

As Spratt remembers it, the president said he'd rather have John Spratt with Parkinson's around than a lot of others without it.

"I left there thinking, 'Well, I should give serious consideration to serving again,'" said Spratt, recalling the meeting on a recent Sunday, two weeks from the showdown of his 15th re-election campaign and the end of the hardest political battle of his career.

In the Palmetto State, news that Spratt would be defending his seat didn't bode well with Republican heavyweights in the district. Things had changed.The Supreme Court's recent Citizens United decision had severely loosened up and deregulated campaign finance rules. Outside groups could now keep secret the source of unlimited expenditures spent by third-party organizations to influence elections.

Any national limited government big shot with a couple million bucks to spend could chip in on some early South Carolina street cred.

"I just wish he would have retired," says Republican National Committeeman Glenn McCall who is also a county GOP chairman in Spratt's district. "Because overall he's a good guy. He just fell into - since he's a part of the leadership he had to go along to get along and it's totally against his constituents."

In the past couple months millions of out-of-state dollars aimed at ousting Spratt have bombed into his district, which covers a quarter of the state and runs along the North Carolina border communities of Charlotte and dips down into the tobacco fields of the heart of it.

His Republican opponent, a little-known developer and attorney named Mick Mulvaney, who is currently serving his first term in the state Senate, is benefiting from the swell of national unrest towards Democrats - and the prospect of a big-time Scott-Brown-style political payoff if he wins.

Big-money groups have in turn set their sites on Spratt, attacking from nearly every kind of media by casting him as a vulnerable and high-profile target.

Across the district the mailbags of U.S. Postal workers are bulging with direct-mail literature paid for by national right-wing groups that have been similarly hammering the congressman.

John Spratt had an idea about where the GOP thought he would be most vulnerable.

"I knew that health-care would be a big issue," he says.

He might not have expected everything else.

'Frankly, I didn't think it would be this difficult'

Perhaps what makes conservatives smile most broadly are the area's changing demographics.

South Carolina's 5th Congressional District has been called one of the fastest-growing parts of the country. Thousands of new voters have moved down from North Carolina, largely because of lower taxes. And their political leanings are evident in the increased turnout in the June South Carolina GOP primary, according to state Rep. Ralph Norman who lost to Spratt four years ago.

Even so, at a recent event for seniors, Mulvaney told them he didn't think in the beginning that the race would be as easy for him as it's turned out.

"I expected to lose by 15 points," he said, according to Matt Garfield of the Rock Hill Herald. "You just don't beat Mr. Spratt. ... Things have changed dramatically."

Armed with that voter data, hundreds of thousands of dollars in third-party advocacy and support, friendly bloggers and a tea party tide at his back, Mulvaney has become more confident.

Standing with his wife and kids at a community festival in his home town of Indian Land, dressed in a polo-style shirt and shorts, Mulvaney said that if he gets as many votes as Spratt's last Republican challenger did in '08 - and Spratt gets as many votes as he took in against Norman in '06 - then Mulvaney wins by 16 points.

For Spratt's campaign the trajectory seems reversed.

"Frankly, I didn't think it would be this difficult," Spratt said Oct. 17, after a speech at the Old Hickory VFW Post in Rock Hill.

"People are voting their wallets," Spratt says, "and they should."

But the congressman thought the Recovery Act, which he helped pass, would be more appreciated by now. Its accomplishments, however, are complex and hard to craft into nicely packaged sound bytes. Harder than, say, his opponent's oft-repeated one-liner: that the stimulus didn't create one job.

"The results are scattered," Spratt says about President Obama's stimulus bill. "They're typically stated in ranges rather than definitive numbers and for all those reasons the Recovery Act, I don't think, has gotten the credit it deserves in helping the economy get back on its feet."

On this day, a Sunday, Spratt sat with a woman named Mary Pace for half an hour after a speech at the Rock Hill VFW post because she had some questions for him.

A volunteer in-home caregiver, Pace wanted some answers about certain things her patients had been getting in the mail. It was attack literature talking about, among other things, how stimulus dollars went to study anthills in another part of the country.

Pace said Spratt answered her questions well enough. She's voted for him in the past and says she'll probably do it again. She's never met Mulvaney and doesn't know much about him, she said.

"I won't vote for somebody if I can't talk to them," Pace said.. "Two years ago I had [Spratt] cornered at a Christmas party and he sat with me for 45 minutes until his aide come and rescued him."

Pace says she still has a lot of questions for Spratt, but he's answered some of them, such as what's going on with Social Security.

The direct mail she gets can be confusing, she admits, but Pace says she can always call her congressman's office about anything.

Spratt has long maintained he's running a retail campaign against a wholesale effort. He's long been known for his accessibility and constituent service.

"Just a real treasure to the state of South Carolina," says outgoing state Democratic Party Chairwoman Carol Fowler. She's said she's been happy with the national party's support on Spratt's behalf while the state party's former chairman has been screaming about lack of national support for the state's Democratic gubernatorial nominee Vincent Sheheen.

Spratt has a war chest about double Mulvaney's going into the home stretch in what will largely be a massive air war.

On the ground, Spratt obviously can't get to everyone.

While he sits with Mary Pace, allaying her fears and trying to clear up misunderstandings, Leo Reed is a room away on a VFW barstool, a fistful of wooden beer tokens scattered on the bar in front of him along with his cane and a sweating bottle of Miller Lite.

Reed, 77, and a retired Marine, votes for Republicans most of the time but has for years split his ticket to keep the Democratic congressman in office.

He's thinking this time, though, that he might have to go another way.

It's the usual thing: Reed is fed up with the Democrats in Washington, fed up with all that irresponsible spending. The health care reform bill? That was crazy, he says.

Reed had recently sent a letter to Spratt outlining the problems he had with him. He says he got a very nice reply back.

"I was very happy to get it, but I think his time... as far as I'm concerned, it needs to be - we need some new blood up there," Reed says. "I already know who I'm going to vote for. I'm not going to tell you. But obviously I think you can read between the lines I'm sure."

Getting Personal

In their most recent and final debate, held in mid-October, Spratt and Mulvaney squared off at two separate podiums at a public television studio in Columbia.

They sparred over everything from health care reform to the Recovery Act to energy legislation and the Bush tax cuts. If one was for it the other was against.

Throughout his campaign Mulvaney has said that he would want to dismantle the new health care law.

"We focus on jobs, we focus on spending; we focus on health care and because the health care bill involves all three of those things that's where we started our discussions out on the road," he said while attending a community festival in his home town not long ago.

"It's going to kill jobs, especially small businesses," Mulvaney continued. "I've not talked to a small-business person yet who thinks this bill is going to help them grow."

During the debate Spratt's posture was stooped. His hand and his leg shook mildly because of the Parkinson's.

Mulvaney, 20 years his junior, said the election would be a referendum on Spratt's record while Spratt painted Mulvaney as a radical libertarian with extreme ideas.

"I have trouble taking you seriously," Spratt said at one point.

Throughout his campaign the congressman has often said he's faced stiffer opposition when it comes to those who have campaigned against him in the past.

"They were better candidates, per se, than this guy," Spratt says, citing Republican state Rep. Ralph Norman and former York County Council Chairman and later GOP Rep. Carl Gullick.

Spratt says Mulvaney, however, is riding the crest of a long wave, not generated by his personality or anything he's done for the district as a legislator, but by a Tea Party tide that he's merely hoping to surf to victory.

While his campaign staffers have likened Mulvaney to candidates such as Sharon Angle in Nevada and Rand Paul in Kentucky, Spratt doesn't count Mulvaney as a passenger on that particular crazy train.

"But he did go to some explicit effort to brand himself, quote, 'libertarian-Republican,'" Spratt says. "He was clearly trying to identify with them and if he was going to identify with them then he should identify with the policies they espouse...He was clearly going for the Tea Party vote. And the libertarian vote, I guess."

For his part, Mulvaney says the campaign doesn't use labels and he doesn't remember ever saying he was a libertarian.

But the back-and-forth over personalities has obviously caused some tension.

Spratt was reiterating his point about having tougher opponents in the past during an interview with a McClatchy newspaper reporter after the debate. Mulvaney and his campaign manager were hovering within earshot as Spratt spoke.

Mulvaney pounced.

"Hey, I'm right here when you're saying that," he snapped.

Spratt spokesman Nu Wexler stepped in front of the candidate, telling him not to interrupt the interview.

It wasn't exactly worthy of New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino-style headlines, but if anything it exposed a raw nerve in a race that has become somewhat personal.

Both candidates have been airing rapid-fire negative TV attack ads over the airwaves at each other in the final stretch of the race.

In his most hard hitting spot, Spratt accuses Mulvaney of making millions off a failed land development deal in the district that he walked away from after talking the Lancaster County Council into securing $30 million in bonds to increase its value.

Mulvaney says the ad isn't accurate but declined to say how much money he made off the development deal, which, now foreclosed on by the company who bought it from Mulvaney, appears in the ad like a third-world wasteland.

"Mick Mulvaney definitely cheated the taxpayers of Lancaster County when he asked for $30 million to develop this and he promised he would see this project through 'til the end and he didn't. He lied," says Gina Santoro in the ad, an Indian Land resident and self-described Republican who lives in the area in question.

Mulvaney has hit back, blasting Spratt for attacking him on the development deal and saying that the congressman has changed, insinuating that he's become more liberal.

That might work for other congressional Democratic candidates across the country - and even in South Carolina - who have gone great lengths to distance themselves from the Democratic administration.

But Spratt has done the opposite.

Recently he's played up Obama's backing and support in a round of radio ads airing throughout the district. In them Obama refers to the congressman as his friend.

"Nobody has done more to create good jobs in their home state than John," Obama says in the ad. "John Spratt is working with me to create good jobs and keep our economy moving forward, and that's why it's so important to vote and keep him in Congress."

'I wouldn't feel cheated'

While Spratt says his one-on-one with President Obama last winter was a heady experience, he characterizes it as just one factor out of many in his decision to seek re-election.

"The fact that he called me down there and said 'These are difficult problems and I need people who can work on solutions and sell those solutions' - he convinced me he was sincere," Spratt says of Obama. "It was a big decision; that was just one factor in the decision. I did want to sit on the fiscal commission. We need a plan, it needs to be bi-partisan and I thought this was one opportunity to get that done. It was something that I really wanted to do."

Toward the end of March, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appointed Spratt to the president's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform along with two other House Democrats, Xavier Becerra of California and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois.

"Chairman Spratt, Congressman Becerra, and Congresswoman Schakowsky are champions of common sense steps to balancing our budget and keeping our commitment to all Americans," Pelosi said at the time. "They have the background, records, and expertise to address this crisis, and will add innovative, creative ideas to the commission's recommendations."

It's reasons like those that provide the backbone of the campaign for Spratt's re-election. It's the known versus the unknown.

"The problem for Mick Mulvaney is that even if the Republicans take the House he's going to be a back bencher," says Spratt's campaign manager Wil Brown. "And the other problem is the people of this district don't know what he believes in."

That perceived lack of any nailed down record of policy substance was enough for the Florence Morning News editorial board to recently endorse Spratt over Mulvaney on similar grounds.

"Mulvaney wants to eliminate the capital gains tax, lower tax rates on business and cut income tax rates, but he doesn't say what services will be cut to balance out that decrease in tax revenue, which makes his arguments little more than rhetoric," the Oct. 24 editorial declared. "Spratt's known as a workhorse not a show horse, and it seems a show horse is all Mulvaney would be since he couldn't give specific answers to questions without going off the rails into talking points," it went on. "Spratt maintains a calm, reasoned demeanor and gives specific and researched answers to questions on the other hand."

Whether that will be enough come Election Day remains to be seen.

Recently, Real Clear Politics has labeled the race as leaning Republican.

True or not, and as different as this race as been from any others he's faced in the past, Spratt doesn't see what's happening nationally as enough to erode his longtime base of built-in bi-partisan support.

Indeed, the race might not hinge on a cul-de-sac of leather-skinned golf and tennis players in a retirement community in Sun City just over the border from Charlotte International. Or it might not swing on the unprecedented influence of moneyed outside special interests with an ax to grind.

But if it does?

"I wouldn't feel cheated," Spratt says if on Election Day the numbers just don't turn out in his favor this time. "This game is, if you can't take rejection you shouldn't be in politics, I guess. I hypothesize about my likelihood of defeat. I don't think it's likely, I really think things are picking up. And what really encourages me is that when I get out amongst the people, the real voters - not pollster people, I mean the real people - I get a warm reception.

"I feel good and everywhere I go and see real people I get reinforced, I really do. I'm upbeat and I'm not thinking about what I'm going to do if I get defeated but I'm certainly not going to fall on my sword.

"I'd like to serve again because I think I have something to offer to the immediate situation, namely putting together a different kind of budget and addressing some attractable progress for the first time in several years. So, I'd really like to be part of that fiscal effort to put the country on sound financial footing."

But, Spratt says, there's life after Congress. He could spend more time with his family, of course. He has five grandchildren.

He could get to know them better, he says, smiling.