Toward the end of September, as the national climate turned increasingly grim for Democrats, U.S. Rep. John Spratt sat down for a phone call from his pollster.
Fred Yang had some difficult news. Based on the anti-incumbent anger showing up in his polls of the 5th Congressional District, Yang had determined that a TV strategy built around service and accomplishments would not succeed, according to a person briefed on the conversation.
The only hope was to raise questions about Republican challenger Mick Mulvaney, specifically by focusing on his role in Edenmoor, a housing development plagued by financial and environmental problems.
The congressman was floored by the assessment from Yang, his longtime pollster with the Garin Hart Yang Research Group in Washington, D.C.
"After 28 years and everything I've done for the district, the only way I can win is by going after Mulvaney?" Spratt said.
"Yang's response was, 'Yes, Congressman, that's just about it.'"
Over the next several weeks, the Spratt campaign aired a television commercial that criticized Mulvaney for failing to follow through on the development after he persuaded Lancaster County to issue $30 million in bonds.
A second, hard-hitting ad featured an interview with an Indian Land resident lamenting Edenmoor's state of decay. Spratt also ran a pair of ads touting his own service.
But it wasn't enough.
A decisive outcome
Mulvaney garnered 55 percent of the vote to Spratt's 45 percent - a margin that would have seemed unimaginable even a year ago.
Given the final tally, staffers for Spratt now believe nothing they did - or didn't do - could have prevented Mulvaney from winning.
"It's hard to think of a staff-level decision that could have changed the outcome," said Nu Wexler, who joined the campaign as communications director in October.
"We faced a national Republican wave and $2 million in outside spending, and it was just too much."
Mulvaney kept the focus on Spratt's votes in favor of health care reform and the stimulus package.
"If Mr. Spratt had not voted for every pillar of the Obama agenda, he would not have lost," Mulvaney said last week. "Folks recognized that their congressman had changed."
But in interviews last week, a half-dozen Spratt friends and supporters placed some of the blame on the Spratt campaign, saying that a better-organized, better-funded operation could have made the race closer.
"The campaign staff they had was just amateurish for a long time," said a Democrat with ties to the campaign. "It needed to be staffed with some hardened, experienced professionals. They just didn't do that."
Much of the frustration is directed at campaign manager Wil Brown, a 32-year-old Latta native with no previous experience managing a U.S. House race.
Brown's abrasive style alienated volunteers and members of Spratt's inner circle, some friends and supporters said. Resistant to small talk, Brown could be found outside campaign events, smoking a cigarette.
"His manner of dealing with people was abrupt," said one member of the campaign team. "He wasn't friendly or folksy. He was all business."
Previously, Brown managed John Long's unsuccessful 2002 bid for S.C. agriculture commissioner. He also worked for three months on Columbia attorney Dwight Drake's short-lived 2010 run for S.C. governor.
Brown said the nature of the election cycle made for a stressful campaign.
"I feel like I did as well as anybody could've done," he said. "Campaigns are intense kinds of things. I've seen some where people don't speak afterward. I don't feel like I made any enemies."
Brown's speciality was polling data and messaging, Spratt said in an interview on Saturday.
"Were there personality conflicts?" Spratt said. "There were in every campaign. He did well enough. We all could've done better."
The problem, Brown and others said, was a dismal environment for incumbents - and an opponent in Mulvaney who avoided gaffes.
"All his campaign needed to do was not make a huge mistake, and they didn't" make one, Brown said.
In fact, Mulvaney employed a clever strategy by complimenting Spratt's record of service, even as he criticized the congressman for his most recent votes, said Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Winthrop University.
"He made (voters) feel OK about supporting Spratt in the past," Huffmon said.
Spratt believes his own biggest mistake was not responding quickly or effectively enough to the barrage of TV ads run by outside groups.
"We were running neck-and-neck until they started carpet-bombing me," he said. "People hear that stuff frequently enough, and they start to say it must be true. I should have stood up and refuted it."
A late start?
Others close to the campaign believe Spratt got a late start that made it tougher to raise money, hire the most talented staffers and energize a grass-roots network.
Spratt, 68, acknowledged he spent most of 2009 contemplating retirement, holding off on a final decision until a direct appeal from President Barack Obama around Christmas. A campaign kickoff was held in June, and the first TV commercial aired in mid-September.
The timing worked in previous elections, but this cycle demanded a different approach, said a friend who watched the campaign from afar.
"He wound up with a campaign that looked a lot like the campaigns of 10 years ago," said the friend. "What John got was a campaign that was behind the curve."
Spratt disagrees: "I don't think our timing cost us the election. We were bucking a tidal wave of anti-incumbency."
Brown pointed out that two veteran House Democrats, Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania and Chet Edwards of Texas, mounted early, aggressive campaigns - and still were defeated.
"We could've gone up earlier on television, but I don't think it would've affected the outcome," Brown said. "Maybe drive it up a point or two."
In keeping with custom, Spratt did not hire a South Carolina-based fundraiser to reach out to key Democratic figures in the Palmetto State.
Pattie Fiorello handled fundraising from her firm's Washington, D.C., office, Spratt campaign expenditure records show.
The campaign missed out on potential in-state donors, one Democratic official said, especially in July when Vice President Joe Biden headlined a fundraiser for Spratt in Columbia. The event netted a little more than $40,000 after expenses for Biden's security detail, venue costs and food, Brown said.
Pennsylvania House candidate John Callahan raised $178,000 from a Biden fundraiser in April, according to media accounts of the event.
Late in the campaign, Spratt added an experienced hand in Wexler, former director of the S.C. Democratic Party and now communications director for the House Education & Labor Committee.
Wexler improved relations with the media and brought a sharper focus to outreach efforts. He said the staff performed admirably but could not change the mood of the electorate.
"Our polling showed that voters still don't know much about Mulvaney," he said. "They just know he's not an incumbent member of Congress."
Two senior-level aides retired from Spratt's congressional staff in recent years. One local Democrat said Spratt could have benefited from their knowledge and local relationships over the past term.
Chief of staff Ellen Buchanan retired in 2006 and district director Robert "Hoppy" Hopkins followed a year later. Both had been with Spratt since the 1980s.
"Hoppy kept his pulse on the politics of the district," said the Democrat. "He knew what was going on in every single county."
Health care vote
On Monday, as the campaign neared the final stage, the White House placed a call to Spratt's home in York.
President Obama wanted to say good luck. The candidate was not home. The two sides played phone tag Tuesday and Wednesday, Spratt said, but were unable to connect.
"Then he went to India, I guess," Spratt said, referring to the president's overseas trip. "There's still time to catch up. We'll probably have a meeting about what to do with the fiscal commission."
In some ways, it was a fitting coda.
One of Spratt's top vulnerabilities was his support for the Democratic agenda, most notably the health care law.
Though he wants to see tweaks, Spratt believes the bill will bring better access and cost-savings to a broken system. Of all the choices made during the campaign, the vote likely guaranteed Spratt's fate, multiple staff members concluded.
"The only thing that could have made a difference," one staffer said, "was if he voted against health care."