Spratt, Mulvaney race emblematic of anti-incumbent mood

Paul Conner Executive Editor
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South Carolina’s 5th congressional district may be a textbook example of the anti-incumbent sentiment that has already helped defeat the likes of Democratic Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter and South Carolina Republican Rep. Bob Inglis in party primaries this election cycle.

Rep. John Spratt, a South Carolina Democrat from the 14-county district, has spent 28 years in Congress, chairs the House Budget Committee and has brought home to his district millions of dollars in federal money during his tenure in Congress. Nonetheless, the veteran legislator faces a stiff challenge from four-year South Carolina Republican state Sen. Mick Mulvaney.

The Cook Political Report and Real Clear Politics list the race as a toss-up, and internal polls from both campaigns show a tight race. The latest Mulvaney poll shows the race as a virtual tie, while Spratt’s polling shows the incumbent with a slight lead.

Mulvaney, a former lawyer running on a platform calling for limiting federal spending, promoting private enterprise and other principles of limited government, has the support of many in the Tea Party movement, including the S.C. District 5 Patriots.

Joe Thompson, the group’s president, told The Daily Caller that many Tea Party voters are unhappy with Spratt’s votes for health care reform, cap and trade energy legislation and the stimulus bill. They also don’t like the fact that the Spratt-led Budget Committee has yet to pass a federal budget for 2011.

Rather than make excuses for voting 98 percent with his Party, Spratt has instead highlighted the federal dollars that he has brought to the district, seeming to heed the advice of Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine, who has encouraged Democrats to proudly stand by the achievements of their Party.

“I think if you run away from who you are, that you’re a Democrat and you’re proud to be a Democrat, it’s foolish,” Kaine told Fox News’ Chris Wallace in an interview Sunday. “And the reason it’s foolish is you’ve got a lot to be proud of.”

Spratt’s reelection campaign has not exactly gone smoothly so far.

Last week, Spratt’s communications director Wayne Wingate was quoted as saying that “if Osama bin Laden ran in this district as a Republican, he would get 38 to 40 percent of the vote in any election year.” The quote did not sit well with many voters.

“I don’t understand it. I guess they want to insult us until we vote for them,” Thompson said. “I thought they were supposed to sell some of the virtues of John Spratt, not try to insult the people even more. I kinda take that personally.”

Spratt has since distanced himself from his spokesman, saying the comment was “offensive and insulting and in no way reflects my views about voters in the 5th Congressional District.”

“It started last year with Nancy Pelosi insulting the Tea Party as angry mobs, and then they’ve gone to calling them racist, and now you have one of Spratt’s spokesmen making an off-handed comment like that,” Thompson said. “They are insulting the voters, the residents of this district with this nonsense.”

On top of that political blunder, a Sunday New York Times story about Democratic leaders planning to perform “political triage” – that is, redirecting funds from vulnerable incumbents to those who have a better chance of survival – seemed to suggest that Spratt’s campaign may not be a top priority for the Democratic leadership.

Spratt, like many moderate Democrats, faced a tough crowd at a town hall meeting last August during the congressional debate over health care, and the discontent has not subsided since then.

“The choice is pretty clear. John Spratt clearly is a big government kind of guy,” Thompson said. “He thinks that’s the solution to all of our ills, and I think the people have wised up to the fact that that is not the best path for us to be on.”

Spratt and Mulvaney will face off in the race’s first debate Tuesday evening at a country club in Lake Wylie, S.C., and the two are already engaged in pre-debate posturing. Television cameras were banned from the debate at Spratt’s request, a demand that Mulvaney criticized as “refusing the most basic expectations of transparency.”