Politics & Government

S. Carolina's Joe Wilson borrows to finance re-election fight

WASHINGTON — Listen to Rep. Joe Wilson talk about his re-election prospects this fall, and you'll hear little beyond his trademark optimism.

Look at the numbers, though, and you'll get a cloudier perspective.

Wilson, a Republican in his third full House term, took out a $250,000 bank loan last month to help repel his strongest campaign challenge since he replaced the late Rep. Floyd Spence in 2001.

It's the first time Wilson has relied on borrowed money since his initial congressional run seven years ago in a special election after Spence's death.

"I wanted to have money on hand for campaign obligations — paying for polling, printing, advertising," Wilson said. "It was a way to be prepared."

Democrat Robert Miller of Ladys Island, a former Marine Corps captain who served two combat tours in Iraq, has loaned himself $110,000 as he challenges Wilson in his first bid for public office.

Anchored by the conservative hub of Lexington, Wilson's 2nd Congressional District is solidly Republican and hasn't sent a Democrat to Congress since 1965.

Even in a tough election year nationwide for GOP candidates, Miller faces an uphill fight in his bid to defeat Wilson.

Wilson, a former state senator who earlier worked for Spence and Sen. Strom Thurmond, draws enthusiastic crowds as he tours the summertime festivals up and down his district.

But the congressman's new pledge not to seek funding earmarks in Washington has angered local leaders back home, among them some fellow Republicans.

"We're in dire need of federal funding for roads," Lexington City Councilman Danny Frazier said Friday. "That's why I'm concerned about Joe not taking earmarks. If everyone else is getting earmarks, we should get them, too."

Frazier — who went so far as to call Wilson "a wussy" at a recent televised council meeting — noted that House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn has brought home tens of millions of dollars for his constituents in the neighboring 6th District.

In the Lowcountry, Beaufort County Council chairman Weston Newman and deputy chairman William "Skeet" Von Harten went to Washington in March. They asked Wilson to help obtain money to expand the Beaufort National Cemetery for veterans.

The two men were disappointed when Wilson, a longtime National Guard officer with four sons who've served in the military, turned them down. Von Harten recounted his response to Wilson.

"Goodness gracious, we know that there are going to be earmarks, we know that others are going to do it -- we would hope that maybe we could pick up some support from you," Von Harten told Wilson.

Wilson said he is observing a one-year moratorium on pursuing appropriations earmarks in order to protest lawmakers' use of seniority and insider clout to steer home federal money.

"In the broken system that we have, our earmarks would be so handicapped that no matter how worthy they are, they wouldn't receive proper consideration," Wilson said.

U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, a Greenville Republican, doesn't seek earmarks and has led efforts to eliminate them. Fellow GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham still pursues earmarks.

Miller, who defeated retired Air Force Col. Blaine Lotz by a 2-1 margin in the June 10 Democratic primary, criticized Wilson for rejecting highway funds and other federal aid.

"The Second District has really just been left on its own," Miller said. "Our district has so many infrastructure problems and so many needs, not bringing in money to fix our roads so we can increase economic opportunities -- his (earmark) moratorium is misguided."

Wilson overwhelmingly defeated Phil Black in the June 10 Republican primary, racking up an 85-15 percent win.

Black was Wilson's first primary opponent, and Wilson has faced only token Democratic opposition in his previous congressional races. Michael Ellisor raised little money in 2004 and 2006, gaining less than 38 percent of the vote both times.

Wilson now defends his seat in a trying year for Republican candidates, as Democrats try to build on the House and Senate majorities they gained two years ago.

Chris Carpenter, an aide to former Sen. Fritz Hollings and now an Atlanta political consultant, acknowledged that it's difficult to persuade Democratic leaders in Washington that Miller has a real shot at defeating Wilson.

"There is a predisposition of national folks to look at South Carolina and say, 'It's a Republican state,'" said Carpenter.

Carpenter, who is advising Miller, said they had encouraging visits in Washington last week with top aides for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which directs the party's nationwide election strategy.

The committee hasn't put South Carolina's 2nd District on its "Red to Blue" list of targeted seats yet, but Miller hopes he'll get some help as the campaign heats up after Labor Day.

"I'm a pro-gun, pro-military, socially kind of conservative Democrat," Miller said.

The Swing State Project (www.swingstateproject.com), a liberal-leaning political group, recently added the Wilson-Miller contest to its list of 21 House "races to watch."

When the dust settles, Wilson is confident he'll repel Miller's challenge.

Wilson, who chairs the House Victory in Iraq Caucus and has made nine trips there, is buttressed by recent security gains in the war.

Wilson noted that 52,000 people voted in his district's Republican primary, more than twice the number who cast ballots in the Democratic primary.

"I believe that, indeed, politics is local," Wilson said. "I'm very pleased to see the level of enthusiasm for Republican campaign efforts in the Second District."

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