This week marked another act in the entertaining psychodrama between the White House and House Democrats. One reasonable comment from President Obama’s spokesman Robert Gibbs—that the House is in play this fall—turned into a Capitol Hill shouting match about hurt feelings.
The squabble had all the hallmarks of a family feud, and the congressmen, who complained that Obama hasn’t been paying enough attention to their campaigns, came off like petulant teenagers slamming the door in Dad’s face. It’s so embarrassing to be seen with Obama, and his sinking approval ratings these days, but House Democrats still expect him to pay the bills.
In an election that has drawn interest from Sarah Palin and national Tea Party groups, Spratt has proven to be a rare commodity: a Blue Dog unafraid to sport his true Democratic colors and happy to keep the White House in the picture.
But there’s at least one congressman who seems pleased with the White House’s efforts on his behalf, and he’s running in one of the cycle’s toughest races in one of the country’s reddest states: South Carolina Rep. John Spratt, the old bull who lords over the powerful House Budget Committee.
Running for his 15th term representing the upstate Fifth District—which went for John McCain in 2008 and George W. Bush in 2004—Spratt is frequently mentioned as one of the mightiest Democrats likely to fall come November. Just last week, the National Review speculated that Spratt was “This Cycle’s Most Vulnerable Longtime House Democrat.” And yet in an election that has drawn interest from Sarah Palin and national Tea Party groups, Spratt has proven to be a rare commodity: a Blue Dog unafraid to sport his true Democratic colors and happy to keep the White House in the picture.
What makes the current House hysterics about Obama’s purported inattention all the more surprising is that for a significant number of members, the White House’s stamp of approval is more curse than blessing. Sure, there are districts where a visit from the president can still pay dividends. But beginning the 2010 campaign season, there were 49 House Democrats attempting to hang on to seats in districts that favored John McCain in 2008.
Some, like the powerful Wisconsin Rep. David Obey, didn’t have the stomach for another campaign. Another, Alabama Rep. Parker Griffith, switched parties in an effort to keep his place in Washington. Still others started to shed their Democratic labels, doing the best they could to blend in while an anti-incumbent, anti-Washington mood fouled up their chances for reelection.
John Spratt is well-liked by this White House—he recently signed up to serve on the president’s deficit commission—and he isn’t afraid to have people know it. Next week, Vice President Joe Biden will pay a visit, hosting a fundraiser for Spratt. In April, Spratt accompanied President Obama on a flight from D.C. to Charlotte. (The North Carolina media market captures some of Spratt’s district.) The image of the 67-year-old exiting the airplane on the president’s heels is the stuff of a Republican strategist’s dream. Spratt voted for the stimulus, cap-and-trade, and the health-care overhaul bills. While many of the Democrats who voted against the legislation were Southerners, Spratt made that vote a feature of his campaign.
At one campaign event, he praised the president for doing a “magnificent” job with the bill. Spratt encouraged fellow Democrats to get out on the stump and praise the reform effort.
“One good way to get the information out to the public is to use our megaphones,” Spratt said in May. “The White House has the bully pulpit but we have our megaphones.”
Even if Spratt weren’t so inclined to advertise his closeness to the president, his challenger, a state senator named Mick Mulvaney, would be doing it for him.
“He’s carried a lot of water for the White House over the last 18 months,” says Richards McCrae, the chairman of South Carolina’s York County Democrats. “He recognizes to some extent that he can’t totally disavow the White House or run for the hills from them.”
Spratt is one of two Democratic congressmen left in the South Carolina delegation. The Palmetto State has been giving the country some of its most exuberantly conservative voices since before cannons fired at Fort Sumter (back when said conservatives were Democrats). Spratt’s longevity in the land of Thurmond and DeMint must stick in the craw of the Republican establishment.
Standing by Obama may please the party faithful, but it will test the loyalty of independents and moderates, among whom support for the administration has plunged. The campaign admits as much.
“It is a two-edge sword,” says Wayne Wingate, Spratt’s deputy campaign manager. “There are people who aren’t happy with him. There are people who are happy with him.”
He adds, “[Spratt] is not hiding from the White House, obviously.”
Spratt has been in this bind before. In 1994, the year the Republican Revolution swept the GOP into power in Washington, Spratt held off challenger Larry Bigham by a 52-48 margin. That year, Republicans cut an ad featuring Spratt and Clinton chumming it up at a college basketball game, interspersed with images of Spratt applauding the Democratic president’s program. While Spratt has often been able to rely on the strength of his constituent services, many conservative voters, particularly retirees, have arrived in the district in recent years who may feel no loyalty to him.
Still, showing off his closeness with the country’s most powerful official remains a way for Spratt to signal his influence in Washington to voters at home, says Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Winthrop University. The question, in South Carolina’s upcountry, is whether that influence counts for anything anymore.
“If there is national soap opera to play out,” Huffmon says, “there is no better stage than South Carolina. We are sort of primed for these crazy things.”
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.