Champ versus Challenger

Posted: Feb 13, 2006 12:05 AM

COLUMBIA, SC -- How do you defeat an incumbent Congressman who has been elected 12 times since 1982 and who is a member of his party’s leadership?

Well, a good way to begin is to be recruited by Karl Rove,  Ken Mehlman, and the National Republican Congressional Committee.

That’s what happened to Ralph Norman, a Rock Hill, South Carolina, real-estate developer and state representative, who announced in October 2005 that he would challenge Congressman John Spratt to represent South Carolina’s 5th District. 

In This Corner, Wearing The Blue

John Spratt, the incumbent Congressman representing the 5th District of South Carolina (which includes the north central part of the state, bordering North Carolina), was first elected to Congress in 1982. He has risen through the ranks of the Democratic Party to become Assistant to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, ranking member of the Budget Committee, and one of the senior members of the Armed Services Committee. 

John Spratt grew up in York, where he still lives. His personal accolades run longer than his Congressional accomplishments.  Both his high school and Davidson College elected him President of the Student Body. He won a Marshall Scholarship to Oxford and earned a law degree from Yale. He served as a captain in the Army from 1969-71 and was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal. In 1971, he came home to practice law.   

Spratt is a serious incumbent; his seniority matters, particularly in a state like South Carolina where voters are used to changing U.S. senators only every 50 years or so. Senator Strom Thurmond served from 1954-2003, chaired the Judiciary Committee and the Armed Services Committee several times each, served as president pro-tempore and ran for President in 1948. Senator Fritz Hollings served from 1966-2005, chaired the Budget Committee and the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and ran for president in 1984.   Today, South Carolina is represented by two freshman senators, Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint, and though they are rising stars, they have not resided long enough in the tradition-laden body to wield much power. And of the four Republican members of the South Carolina delegation to the House, not one was elected before 2001. Thus, John Spratt is the one high point on the seniority scale. 

Spratt has spent significant resources to establish a reputation in South Carolina as a moderate Democrat. Though Republicans paint him as a liberal Democrat, both Spratt and Minority Leader Pelosi claim he is Assistant to the Minority Leader because he is not a liberal. They claim he does not vote the way she does, that he brings fresh ideas to the Democratic table. The State, South Carolina’s largest newspaper, called John Spratt "a bridge-builder who can reach across party lines."  Congressman Spratt even helped negotiate Newt Gingrich’s and President Clinton’s 1997 Balanced Budget Agreement.  "That's one of the advantages of establishing a reputation and personality among your constituents," he said. "People know where I'm coming from. ... I'm very much in the mainstream."

Congressman Spratt also uses his seniority to help the 5th District. He brings home the pork. In a state that was hit hard—despite the seniority of Thurmond and Hollings—during the 1990s version of Base Realignment and Closure Hearings, Spratt protected Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, South Carolina through several rounds of Base Realignment and Closure hearings. National Journal featured him on its cover as "a stand-out" in Congress, comparing his legislative skills to the "best infielders in baseball."

Congressman Spratt has not faced serious opposition in several election cycles. According to the South Carolina Election Commission, Spratt’s lowest showing in recent years was 54% of the vote in 1996, running against Larry Bigham. Since then, he has defeated the Republican challenger with, give-or-take a few points, 60% of the vote. In 2002, the Republican Party did not even field a candidate. 

In This Corner, Wearing The Red
Ralph Norman is a first-term member in the South Carolina  House of Representatives. In 2004, he won a three-way primary with 54% of the vote. Not long after, the White House came calling.

Republicans are serious about defeating Congressman Spratt. They recognize that unseating entrenched, powerful incumbents takes more than state dollars and local efforts. That’s why President Bush has graciously allowed Nathan Hollifield, a staff assistant who managed Bush’s ’04 campaign in Tampa, Florida, to manage Norman’s campaign.  

Norman will also benefit from a stream of 2008 presidential hopefuls making visits to South Carolina in preparation for its First-In-The-South primary. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Senators George Allen and John McCain, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani all will be headlining Norman events in 2006. One can also hope that President Bush will make a trip to South Carolina to lend a helping hand to Norman. The combination of these powerful national Republicans should raise some serious dollars for Norman.

South Carolina’s Republican delegation also supports Norman.  “This is a lucky guy,” said South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson, who is joined by the four other Republican House members in support of Norman. Senators Graham and DeMint have also endorsed Norman, indicating that the GOP wants to move beyond a primary contest with Park Gillespie and focus solely on unseating Spratt.  

The Ring

Spratt’s campaign claims that the 5th District is even friendlier to him, demographically, after the 2000 census than the one he represented in 1994, the last time he faced a serious challenger.  However, Republicans point to the changing trends of the 5th in recent elections. Suburbs of both Charlotte and Columbia—Republican-leaning suburbs—are sweeping into the 5th, transforming boll-weevil Democrat territory into a fertile field for Norman. Statewide, only one Democrat, perennial state Treasurer Grady Patterson, will be seeking re-election, while every other Constitutional office is already held by a Republican. This should influence turnout. 

Spratt has never run against a Republican who raised enough money to run television in the expensive Charlotte media market. But Norman out-raised Spratt in the FEC’s fourth quarter of 2005, two-to-one. Spratt understands Norman’s threat and is not surprised. "I fully expected this, he said. “Ralph has considerable assets. I do not take this race lightly by any means."

Since announcing his candidacy in mid-October, Norman has raised over $400,000, more than the last three Republican candidates combined. Spratt, on the other hand, raised just over $200,000. But Spratt still has far more cash available: $700,000 to $400,000. And Spratt’s incumbency has its advantages, too: He doesn’t have to spend money on name recognition and can expect significant help from Democratic operatives seeking to defend one of their last bastions of Southern power. Still, it might not be enough to stop Ralph Norman.

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