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Spratt Tries to Budget for Fall Victory

YORK, S.C. — Rep. John Spratt had just finished opening the 27th annual Summerfest fair here in his hometown when he came face to face with a former donor who was, at that moment, only interested in giving the Congressman a piece of his mind.

“You didn’t listen to us, and now you’ve got a race on your hands,” said John Major, a registered independent who traveled to Summerfest from Blacksburg to confront the South Carolina Democrat and to show his support for Republican state Sen. Mick Mulvaney this fall.

Major was upset about Spratt’s vote in favor of the health care bill. Spratt brushed off the encounter, suggesting the confrontation may have been planned by Mulvaney supporters. The Congressman said the people he’s talking to are mostly interested in the local issues that affect them in his district.

In many ways, the contest between Mulvaney and the 14-term House Budget chairman has come to symbolize GOP efforts to nationalize, and conversely Democratic efforts to localize, the 2010 elections.

But if Spratt wasn’t troubled by Major, he probably should be worried about Jan Ramsey.

Ramsey, who graduated from York High School with Spratt in 1960 and calls the Congressman “a personal friend,” said that although she’s voted for him in every election, this year she’s undecided.

“I woke up one day and realized you should vote for someone on the issues and not just vote for a person because you’ve known them all your life,” she said.

Ramsey said she’s waiting to see what happens with the economy before she decides to vote for Spratt again. But given the short amount of time before November, she’s not optimistic.

Strong Bridges

Unlike some of his fellow Democrats in conservative districts who are in trouble in a GOP-friendly year, Spratt can’t plausibly run away from the party’s agenda this fall or try to portray himself as a Washington outsider.

“Everyone’s well aware he’s part of the [Democratic] leadership,” said Richards McCrae, chairman of the York County Democratic Party. McCrae said Spratt needs to instill the importance of his incumbency and what that means for the district. “The more effective argument to make is that he’s the moderate with a seat at the table.”

[IMGCAP(1)]As he made the rounds at Summerfest, Spratt didn’t just meet and greet the voters who are nearly universally familiar with him and his family’s long history in the state (his father and grandfather both have bridges named after them in the area). He also tried to add a personal touch to a constituent service effort that even Republicans admit, at least until recently, is one of his strong suits.

Spratt was almost late for the procession of local celebrities at Summerfest because he was deep in discussion with York resident Leslie Landeros, who was trying to find a way to bring her husband into the country legally after he was deported last year.

It’s those kinds of efforts that Spratt points to when he’s asked how he plans to avoid being painted as simply part of the establishment that the electorate is so angry with this cycle.

“You explain to people by getting them to think of it in personal, real-life terms,” he said. “Suggesting to them that it may apply to some Members but it doesn’t apply to you. I come home every weekend, give good constituent service and put a premium on our constituent service. … People may not agree with this vote or that, but they remember the time I helped them.”

He also hopes they’ll remember the public works projects he helped get off the ground and local businesses that have been aided by his efforts on and off Capitol Hill.

But Mulvaney believes those efforts amount to little more than a kind of political bribery that the public has grown weary of.

“I think the people have started to realize that what that was really all about was buying votes with their own money, and now it’s transitioned to buying votes with their children’s and grandchildren’s money,” Mulvaney said. “It’s representative of the attitude in Washington that, ‘Hey, there’s money for everything. We’ll just turn the printing presses on.’ People don’t like it.”

Mulvaney questions why voters should believe that re-electing Spratt is beneficial to the district when the area has an unemployment rate above the state average and every county in the district has an unemployment rate above the national average.

Support for the Big Three

For Mulvaney and many of his supporters, the narrative of the 5th district race is how a likable, old-line Southern Democrat from a mostly rural and conservative district lost his way and became a rubber stamp for the more liberal agenda pursued by President Barack Obama and the Democratic-led Congress over the past two years.

Spratt’s “a good ol’ boy. But he’s a good ol’ boy to Washington, not the people,” York resident John Gardner said as he walked around Summerfest.

Spratt voted in favor of the big three — the three most significant pieces of legislation the House has considered this Congress: the stimulus, cap-and-trade and health care.

And though Spratt is often celebrated for his efforts to produce a balanced budget in the late 1990s, Republicans have hit him this cycle for his failure to produce a budget resolution. Mulvaney believes the move is a deliberate attempt by Spratt to help hide the ballooning spending and deficits Congress has created.

As part of his stump speech, Mulvaney says it was Spratt’s handling of his health care town halls in 2009 that drove him to run for Congress in the first place. Democrats say it was probably political opportunism that inspired Mulvaney to run even though he is just two years into his first term in the state Senate. But Mulvaney’s health care story seems to touch a nerve with many of the people who show up to his campaign events.

Bill McKaughan, who attended a recent Mulvaney fundraiser in Rock Hill, said as he was leaving that he felt betrayed by Spratt’s health care vote.

McKaughan, who said the last time he was active in a campaign was in 1980, paid $300 to be listed as a sponsor for Mulvaney’s fundraiser that evening and left with a yard sign tucked under his arm.

A Viable Alternative

With just over two months to go in the campaign, Mulvaney acknowledges that one of his main jobs is to continue to introduce himself to voters outside his state Senate district, which covers Lancaster and York counties, before Democrats can define him.

The state Senator, who had just less than $500,000 on hand at the end of June, will get help in that effort from the National Republican Congressional Committee, which has set aside resources to target the district this fall.

But Mulvaney and the NRCC will go against Spratt’s $1.2 million war chest and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has already reserved more than $1 million in TV airtime in the district.

“When the negative campaigning starts, he’s going to raise my name ID for me,” Mulvaney said. “My job is just let people know that I am not what he’s going to try to make me out to be. … People have already decided they don’t want Mr. Spratt. The question is, am I a viable alternative? That’s the race.”

As the campaign heats up, one issue that continues to be the subject of quiet discussion is the Congressman’s health issues. When he announced his re-election bid in March, Spratt revealed that he was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease.

Mulvaney said the Congressman’s health is not and will not be an issue, but that hasn’t kept others from speculating.

One attendee at a recent Clover/Lake Wylie Republican Women’s Club meeting that Mulvaney attended said she thought Spratt was avoiding appearing beside Mulvaney at a televised debate because of the disease.

For his part, Spratt said he feels great.

“The biggest problem I have is a nuisance, and that’s the damn tremoring hand from time to time,” he said.

It was a tremor that was visible as the Congressman held his right hand over his heart as he sang the national anthem at Summerfest.

Spratt said his battle with Parkinson’s disease will probably be an issue for some people as he fights to win a 15th term this fall.

“What you do is you go out and you make it apparent that you are feeling good, you’re vigorous, you’re healthy,” he said. “The most effective rejoinder to that charge is simply [to have voters say] I saw him at the county fair, I saw him on my street, I saw him at a restaurant. He looked great.”