Politics & Government

South Carolina's Spratt becomes big target of outside groups

Rep. John Spratt, D-SC  in Washington, D.C.
Rep. John Spratt, D-SC in Washington, D.C. Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — For Rep. John Spratt, the fallout from a landmark Supreme Court ruling that lifted limits on corporate campaign spending is more than $1 million from five groups based outside South Carolina and unified by the goal of defeating the House Budget Committee chairman.

The groups targeting Spratt, a York Democrat, have lofty, patriotic names, but the one that has spent the most — Citizens for a Working America — is a shell operation run by a Cincinnati lawyer and a Virginia Republican consultant.

The Lancaster, Va., home address of the GOP consultant, Norman Cummings, is registered with the Federal Election Commission as the address of Citizens for a Working America.

That political action committee was formed just seven weeks ago — on Sept. 10 — and has spent $254,791, all of it on TV ads attacking Spratt.

Cummings said Spratt is ripe for defeat because he's served in the House for almost 28 years and his 5th Congressional District has voted for Republican presidential candidates in recent elections.

"This is a wave election," Cummings told McClatchy. "Candidates like Spratt with a long history need to be looking over their shoulder because this is when they get washed out to sea. This has the potential to be a Republican year and — oh, by the way — that state's got double-digit unemployment."

Outside groups, their corporate fundraising restraints freed by the high court's 5-4 decision Jan. 21, have spent $122 million nationwide in congressional campaigns that could deliver GOP control of the U.S. House in the November elections.

The groups, heavily funded by large businesses, are favoring Republican candidates over Democrats by a 5-to-1 ratio, and the bulk of their spending has paid for TV ads against their favorites' rivals.

President Barack Obama ridiculed the outside groups Sept. 28 at a campaign rally in Madison, Wis.

"Every one of these groups is run by Republican operatives," Obama said. "Every one of them — even though they're posing as nonprofit groups with names like Americans for Prosperity or the Committee for Truth in Politics or Americans for Apple Pie."

As the crowd laughed, Obama added: "I made that last one up."

The Commission on Hope, Growth and Opportunity was founded by Scott Reed, a prominent GOP operative who ran then-Sen. Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign. In South Carolina, the group has spent $236,715 on anti-Spratt TV ads.

Mike Connolly, communications director of the Club for Growth, said Spratt is the only congressional candidate the conservative Washington group has funded ads against — to the tune of $217,285 — in the general election.

Connolly said the group is helping S.C. Sen. Michael "Mick" Mulvaney overcome Spratt's fundraising advantage.

"We wanted to make sure that Mick Mulvaney, who believes in the principles of limited government and economic freedom, would have something like a level playing field and have a chance to win," Connolly said.

Spratt raised $1.1 million through June 30 and had $1.2 million in cash on hand, including money from his last campaign. Mulvaney raised $616,746, including a $210,000 personal loan to his campaign, and had $470,694 in his coffers.

The two candidates declined to release more recent fundraising totals in advance of the FEC's filing deadline of midnight Friday.

The Club for Growth spent $220,234 on behalf of S.C. Rep. Tim Scott, but that was to help him emerge from the crowded field in the 1st Congressional District's Republican primary in June.

All told, outside groups have spent $1.35 million in South Carolina's six U.S. House races and one U.S. Senate contest, with $1.04 million of it on behalf of Mulvaney.

Spratt criticized the Supreme Court's divided decision, in a case called Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, saying it's unleashed a tidal wave of largely concealed campaign spending by out-of-state interests that could threaten American democracy.

"This kind of money can only drown out the voices and votes of average South Carolinians and, for that matter, average Americans everywhere," Spratt said. "It's not healthy."

Mulvaney, an Indian Land Republican, said he's had nothing to do with the TV ads — which have run some 500 times in the district's four media markets — funded by outside groups on his behalf.

"I can assure you that third-party ad buys are the furthest things from my mind," Mulvaney said. "What I control is the money that I raise and that I spend. If (Spratt) wants to complain about outside parties, God bless him, but that's not what I control. It's against the law for us to get involved with those groups."

Tara Malloy, an attorney with the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, a nonprofit organization that works in the areas of campaign finance and elections, said the high court's ruling in the Citizens United case was the most recent in a series of federal judicial decisions that have loosened controls on corporations' campaign spending.

Although Malloy said the Supreme Court clearly left in place disclosure requirements that would reveal the outside groups' donors, FEC enforcement officials are facing problems getting them to disclose such data.

Judith Ingram, an FEC spokeswoman, said the Club for Growth has rejected the agency's requests to identify its donors of over $200, and other outside groups heavily involved in the current congressional campaigns are following suit.

With three Democratic commissioners and three Republican commissioners, the FEC has been hamstrung by divided party-line interpretations of disclosure requirements.

The Republican commissioners say federal election law requires the outside groups to reveal their donors only when the contributions are earmarked for specific TV ad purchases targeting named candidates.

Sen. Lindsey Graham said fellow Republicans may be reaping the benefits of the recent federal court rulings now, but he warned that the long-term impacts threaten them as well as Democrats.

"I don't think the future of politics should be outside groups with a lot of money from who knows who coming in and drowning out candidates," Graham said. "Campaigns shouldn't be about special-interest groups with a lot of money coming in and destroying someone. They should be about facts, not fiction."