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Sunlight Foundation

$2.2 Million in Outside Spending Helped Mick Mulvaney Defeat Rep. John Spratt

Publication: Gannett

Raju Chebium
November 23, 2010

The dean of South Carolina's congressional delegation was swept from office by a tidal wave of cash from outside the Palmetto State, federal records show.

Independent groups unaffiliated with either candidate in the 5th Congressional District race spent $2.2 million to oust 28-year incumbent Rep. John Spratt, chairman of the House Budget Committee and an ally of President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California.

No other South Carolina race attracted that much spending, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Spending by independent groups topped $400 million nationwide, with marquee contests like Nevada's Senate race spurring massive spending on behalf of both candidates, according to an analysis of FEC data by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan watchdog group.

Groups supporting Spratt, a York Democrat, spent only about $12,600 on his behalf, according to the Sunlight Foundation.

Spratt said the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee mounted a robust get-out-the-vote campaign to mobilize Democratic voters in the 5th District. But it wasn't enough to stave off the challenge from Republican state Sen. Mick Mulvaney, who won with 55 percent of the vote.

Calling himself a "high-value target," Spratt said he could have run a more aggressive campaign.

"I was carpet-bombed," he said in a recent telephone interview. "We weren't ready for it. And we didn't really respond to it as forcefully as we should. But I'm not certain it would've changed the outcome because it was such an incessant and heavy bombardment."

Television, radio and print ads and direct mail funded by the Washington-based Club for Growth, Virginia-based Americans for Prosperity, the Iowa-based American Future Fund and other groups were pivotal in steering voters to Mulvaney, Spratt said.

"By my count, there's $1 million of unidentified money that (came) from groups with benign names that belie what their purpose is," Spratt said. "But their purpose is not the edification of South Carolinians, I can tell you that."

Spratt also paid dearly at the polls for voting yes on the health care reform bill - which Obama signed into law in March - and for helping craft the $814 billion economic stimulus law and defending deficit spending as a way to prop up the buckling economy. And he was a Democrat running in an increasingly Republican state during a year when all incumbents were vulnerable, especially those close to Obama and Pelosi.

Political handicapper Charlie Cook pegged the 5th District race a "tossup" heading into the elections, though Spratt had been seen as safe in the past.

Among independent groups, the Club for Growth spent the most - nearly $420,000 - on the effort to oust Spratt, mostly on broadcast ads. The group advocates limited government and free enterprise. The American Future Fund spent $219,000 and the Citizens for a Working America Political Action Committee spent $250,000.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, not an independent group, spent nearly $1.1 million to defeat Spratt, FEC records show.

The only independent groups that supported Spratt's re-election bid were the Humane Society of the U.S., which spent about $6,800, and the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, which spent about $5,800. FEC rules prohibit candidates from associating themselves with independent groups or asking them to run ads.

In January, the Supreme Court struck down restrictions on how much independent groups may raise and spend on political campaigns and said the groups may finance ads that explicitly support or denounce candidates. Some groups can keep their donor lists secret, and many aren't required to disclose donors until well after spending money on a race.

Spratt said the ruling opened the floodgates on corporate spending on elections, but supporters of the decision say it merely struck down congressional restrictions on free speech.

"Free speech is not good for democracy?" Mike Connolly, spokesman for the Club for Growth, said Tuesday. "That's a very popular position for career politicians." The group, one of South Carolina GOP Sen. Jim DeMint's biggest backers, wanted to give Mulvaney a fighting chance against a well-financed, entrenched incumbent, he said.

FEC records show Spratt raised $1.8 million for the Nov. 2 elections and Mulvaney raised $1.3 million.

"As we looked at the race, looked at the issues, and looked at Chairman Spratt's vulnerabilities, we thought this was a good race to invest in," Connolly said. "We wanted to level the playing field."