Defying an anti-incumbent mood, a veteran Democrat runs on his record

His hometown is a Republican bastion. Double-digit unemployment grips the area. “Tea party” conservatism is spreading like wildfire. For Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.), a member of his party’s national leadership with a voting record to match, the midterm election has put a bull’s-eye on his back.

But unlike many other senior Democrats in his perilous position, Spratt has decided to fight rather than quit.

“It’s angrier than it has been at any time in the past,” Spratt said after working a crowd of retirees here and fielding questions about congressional scandals, illegal immigration and Medicare payment cuts.

It’s no mystery why this 27-year incumbent is in political trouble in this anti-incumbent year.

The wonder is that he is still in the game.

Spratt’s fight to hold on in this mostly rural district showcases not just why Democrats could lose control of the House, but also how they may yet manage to stem the tide. Even with the political establishment under siege around the country, Democrats like Spratt are betting that some advantages of incumbency remain potent.

“What thinking person would be willing to give up the power and the experience John Spratt has?” said Bonnie Peterson, a retired teacher who moved from Illinois three years ago.

A senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, Spratt can claim credit for protecting a major military base in his district through decades of Pentagon retrenchment. He could tell the crowd that their new Sun City development might not have been built but for Spratt’s 1994 bill to resolve a festering land dispute.

“He has built up a lot of good will,” conceded his Republican opponent, state Sen. Mick Mulvaney. “But there is a vulnerability there.”

Mulvaney says his latest poll shows that he has pulled even with Spratt at 46%-46%. Aides to Spratt say their polls also show a very close race.

Incumbents around the country are working to tap their own reservoirs of good will in a year that is testing the truism that voters hate Congress but love their own congressman.

That is a particularly steep challenge for Spratt: His district gave GOP Sen. John McCain a 7-percentage-point edge in the 2008 presidential election. He has voted for every pillar of President Obama’s agenda — healthcare, global warming curbs, economic stimulus spending and the auto industry bailout. He is chairman of the House Budget Committee, a dubious distinction at a time when the national debt and public anger about it are mounting.

The top of his party’s ticket this year is weak — an obscure, unemployed veteran has stumbled into the Democratic Senate nomination — in a state where the tea party movement has made a splash.

Mulvaney, by contrast, is grabbing the coattails of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a conservative icon who is all but guaranteed reelection and spent the day campaigning with him last week.

“This is a conservative district,” Mulvaney told a spirited county Republican meeting recently in a restaurant in Prosperity. “Thirty-nine House Democrats voted against the healthcare bill. Mr. Spratt wasn’t one of them.… He is the highest-ranking Democrat we can toss out. It is a tremendous opportunity to send that message: We don’t like what’s happening in Washington.”

Faced with similar forces this year, other senior Democrats decided to retire rather than face the toughest reelection contests of their careers. Some party officials thought the 67-year-old Spratt, who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, might join the parade into retirement.

He decided to run even though the political climate turned ugly a year ago when, like many fellow Democrats, he was pummeled by voter anger at town hall meetings about the healthcare bill. (Mulvaney decided to run against Spratt after attending one especially raucous affair.)

Many Democrats in marginal districts girded their political loins and responded by voting against the healthcare bill, campaigning as outsiders and distancing themselves from Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D- San Francisco).

That dodge has been unavailable to a party loyalist and leader like Spratt; he has not even tried. Instead, he is doubling down on his incumbency and status as an insider.

When Obama traveled to the area on Air Force One this spring, Spratt flew along with him and strode with him onto the tarmac. Vice President Joe Biden headlined a fundraiser for Spratt in July. And Spratt reminds voters at every turn what he has been able to accomplish in Washington and in his district because of his seniority — a strategy that makes the race more about him than about national issues.

In a campaign flier revealing “The Real John Spratt,” he includes a full-page list of the benefits he has delivered — funding for a sheriffs rifle range, local airport upgrades and community centers.

“He’s been very conscientious about the area,” said Charles McGriff, a 47-year-old single parent in Rock Hill who said he was inclined to vote for Spratt again. “People are looking for jobs and want jobs to stay here in America.”

What’s more, Spratt has almost three times as much campaign money on hand as his Republican opponent.

Mulvaney says Spratt’s financial advantage is his biggest concern — especially because of the unusually high cost of advertising in their district. Mulvaney, who has been in state politics less than four years and opened a campaign headquarters in Lancaster only recently, is laboring to introduce himself to voters before Spratt does it for him.

“He could buy so much TV and make me look so bad that he would look like the lesser of two evils,” Mulvaney said. “There are two kinds of politicians: Those who raise money and those who lose.”

But Mulvaney has the political wind at his back and is getting plenty of support from Republicans nationwide. The Republican National Committee has opened a headquarters in Rock Hill with 26 phone lines — primarily to work to defeat Spratt. The Club for Growth, a national conservative group, is backing him. Mulvaney has been joined at campaign events with national political figures such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Mulvaney aims to win over voters who may have supported Spratt in the past but are disillusioned or looking for a change.

“I think he’s done a very good job,” said Holly Fisk, a Rock Hill massage therapist who voted for McCain in 2008. “But he’s been in there for so long, ever since I can remember. Maybe it’s time to get a fresh face.”

Republicans sense that they have Spratt on the run because he has started trying to portray Mulvaney as “radical,” citing a legislative record that includes votes against state spending for popular education programs.

Glenn McCall, a Republican National Committee official and a South Carolina county party chairman, said that was out of character for Spratt, an old-fashioned Southerner who has generally shied from the slash-and-burn of contemporary politics.

“I’ll just do what I know and be who I am,” Spratt said after spending two hours courting 50 voters, seemingly one by one. “I’m most effective when I’m not assuming some persona for political purposes.”