Politics & Government

'You lie' turns South Carolina race into one of the priciest

Rep. Joe Wilson (pictured here in 2007) delivered his response before the speech was over.
Rep. Joe Wilson (pictured here in 2007) delivered his response before the speech was over. Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — One year ago Thursday, an insult yelled at a president by a congressman on national TV turned Rep. Joe Wilson into an overnight conservative hero and made Rob Miller one of the Democrats' best hopes for picking up a Republican seat in November.

Thanks to the Republican Wilson's "You lie!" shout Sept. 9, 2009, as President Barack Obama addressed a joint session of Congress, his re-election campaign is the nation's richest race and among the most closely watched.

Wilson and Democratic challenger Miller, a former Marine Corps captain who served in Iraq, raised a combined $4.6 million through June 30, most of it from outside of South Carolina.

Miller, having brought in $2.5 million, is the only non-incumbent among the House's Top 10 fundraisers.

Wilson, with $4 million in total contributions, trails only three lawmakers, two of them his party's House leaders in Reps. John Boehner of Ohio and Eric Cantor of Virginia.

Wilson is banking on a tidal wave of anger over the health care overhaul Obama signed into law in March and the Democrats' overall spending to carry him to victory in his heavily Republican 2nd Congressional District.

"The environment is toxic for liberals," Wilson told McClatchy. "The people of South Carolina and really across the country are very, very concerned about the growth of government and the loss of jobs. Republicans are very motivated and very engaged."

In a strong sign of GOP ferment this year, Wilson received 64,938 votes in the June 8 Republican primary — 20,000 more than he got in 2008 against the same opponent, Phil Black, and the most any House primary candidate has ever netted in South Carolina.

Wilson doesn't deny he owes that strong showing in part to his heightened profile since his outburst against Obama.

"Tens of thousands of people in South Carolina and across the United States found out that I've been targeted for defeat and have made contributions in appreciation of my service," Wilson said.

Wilson, a former state senator sent to Washington in a December 2001 special election, said that among his congressional achievements, he's proudest of his support for the U.S. military as a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

"I'm just very grateful that I have the opportunity to promote a strong national defense and respect for our veterans who make it possible for us to enjoy the freedoms we have," Wilson said.

Miller branded Wilson's recent trip to Afghanistan — his 10th — "a junket" and derided all such visits with troops as publicity stunts.

"When I was in Iraq, I don't know how many times we had to take Marines and soldiers off mission so they could provide security for these political tours," Miller told McClatchy. "That's simply unacceptable. These politicians need to get out of the way and let the military get the job done."

The nonpartisan Office of Congressional Ethics is probing Wilson's use of per diem expense funds on 30 foreign trips since 2002, most of them to visit U.S. troops stationed overseas.

Nationwide polls show a decent chance for Republicans to regain their House majority, an outcome that would make Wilson chairman of the armed services panel's powerful military personnel subcommittee.

Wilson is a former military lawyer who reached the rank of colonel while serving in the South Carolina Army National Guard from 1975 to 2003.

The House passed a resolution last September formally reprimanding Wilson for his "You lie!" yell when Obama said the health care bill would prevent illegal immigrants from obtaining its benefits.

The vote was prompted by Wilson's refusal to meet Democrats' demands that he stand on the House floor and issue a public apology. Wilson said that he'd apologized to Obama in a midnight call after the outburst and that Obama had accepted his regrets.

"I've always thought that Representative Wilson does a good job," said Phil Hoffman, a West Columbia business executive who contributed $150 to Wilson in March.

"To be honest with you, I think Wilson was true when he said 'You lie,'" Hoffman said. "The Democratic Party's just gone crazy. Even though I know the Republicans spent a lot of money, too, I just don't agree with what's going on in Washington now."

Miller, seeking his first elected office, is portraying himself as a fiscal conservative and a patriot with war-tested leadership skills.

Miller's counting on support from other military vets, many of them independents and Republicans who were mortified by Wilson's shout at Obama.

William Hendricks is the kind of voter who could carry Miller to an upset victory in November.

Hendricks, former head of the Beaufort County Republican Party, has voted for Wilson in each of his five congressional runs — including two years ago, when Wilson defeated Miller by a 54-46 percent margin.

Now Hendricks, a Vietnam War vet, has contributed $1,000 to Miller and is actively helping him raise money from other Republicans and from independents.

"I don't believe there's any chance in hell that was a spontaneous outburst by a frustrated legislator," Hendricks said of Wilson's yell. "These congressmen get a text of the president's speech before he gives it. Joe Wilson knew exactly what was going to be said, and he knew what his response would be."

Wilson's shout led Hendricks to reach out to Miller in a two-hour private meeting.

"I think he's the real deal," Hendricks said. "He's young, he's idealistic; to me he's more of what I would call a 'blue dog Democrat.' He's no wild-eyed liberal coming out the sky."

The Wilson-Miller campaign has already featured hard-hitting attacks, and it promises to get nastier in the final eight weeks.

The two candidates are competing over who can wrap themselves in the biggest American flag.

Wilson and his campaign allies have repeatedly tied Miller to Moveon.org, a progressive advocacy group based in Berkeley, Calif.

The Wilson campaign is demanding that Miller return tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations channeled to him by the group because of its 2007 ad denigrating Gen. David Petraeus as "General Betray Us."

Petraeus, now commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, then held the same post in Iraq.

The Wilson campaign enlisted retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. James Livingston last month to demand that Miller give back the Moveon.org money.

"If he's the Marine I think he is, he's going to look at himself and say, 'You know, I've got to give that money back,'" Livingston told a group of vets in Beaufort.

Miller condemned the Moveon.org ad.

"I don't believe we should ever use any tactic like that against any serving military officer," he said. "I've walked in the same mud and dust and seen the same blood shed by our warriors as General Petraeus. He's supremely suited for conducting operations in Afghanistan as commander."

Miller, though, refuses to return $371,000 he's received from Moveon.org, saying the group's website is merely a portal for "individual contributions from Republicans, Democrats and independents."

"That's like saying you're angry at Visa," he said.

Miller, in turn, criticized Wilson for having opposed combat bonus pay for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That claim has been made by in virtually identical TV ads run by dozens of Democratic congressional candidates in the last four elections.

Factcheck.org, run by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, says the claim is misleading and stems from a 2003 vote in which Republicans narrowly defeated a Democratic bill to provide the extra military pay.

"What the ad fails to mention is that money for the bonus would have come at the cost of funds for reconstruction of Iraq, which Republicans argued was of critical importance," Factcheck.org found.

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