Barring surprise, Spratt well on way to 14th term

With three days left before filing closes, the field of candidates considering a run against U.S. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., stands at one.

Physical education teacher Albert Spencer, who lost to Spratt four years ago, put his chances for another bid at no better than 50/50. For Spratt, the most important news might not be talk of Spencer's candidacy but the fact that no one else appears interested in entering the race.

Two years ago at this time, Spratt was gearing up for a high-profile showdown with Ralph Norman in what many described as his most serious challenge ever.

Now, he's wondering if he'll have an opponent at all.

No GOP challengers have yet declared, a sign that Republicans are less than enamored with their prospects this year. First elected in 1982, Spratt has served continuously since and chairs the House Budget Committee.

"That just shows you there's not too many fools in this district," said Warren Arthur, chairman of the Darlington County Republican Party. "There's not a chance of any Republican beating him this time. All you've got to do is look at the results in the recent elections."

Taking a short break from work at his Rock Hill office on Wednesday, Spratt said he would be relieved if no one ran against him. However, he heard about the Spencer possibility.

"We'll start unpacking the campaign materials if he chooses to run," said Spratt, who filed with the state party on Tuesday. "I'd like to have that time to spend on different projects. But nevertheless, it's a healthy part of the process to get out and talk to people."

Spencer, of Gaffney, plans to make a final decision by Sunday, the deadline for candidates to register. In his 2004 run, Spencer focused largely on his opposition to abortion.

"There's no such thing as a team that is unbeatable," Spencer said this week. "We saw that in the Super Bowl. It says to me that if you're really trying very hard and preparing properly, I think you have a very good opportunity."

Spencer, 64, teaches physical education and sports management at Limestone College, which helps explain why he'd draw an analogy to football. Spencer compared his hopes to those of the New York Giants, who stunned New England in the Super Bowl.

"He's got a few years on Tom Brady," he said of Spratt, 65.

In 2004, Spencer raised no money and didn't buy any advertising, yet managed to earn 37 percent of the vote in a year when President Bush headlined the top of the Republican ticket.

Two years later, Norman raised $1.1 million but finished only 6 percentage points better. Norman's defeat came in a cycle when Republicans suffered huge losses in Congress, due largely to Bush's declining popularity and public dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq.

"Everybody thought Ralph would do a lot better," said Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Winthrop University. "The fact that a strong candidate lost every county in a district that few people would describe as liberal ... I think scared people off."

Local Republicans talked last year with Rock Hill native David Rawlinson about the possibility of a run. Rawlinson's father, David, is well-known as the former principal at Sunset Park Elementary School. The younger Rawlinson is set to graduate in May from Harvard Business School. After mulling it over, he decided to pursue other job opportunities.

Now, the question is whether a nominal Republican challenger would be good for the GOP. With an opponent on the ballot, Spratt's political machine would crank up and pull voters to the polls in places where Democrats would otherwise see low turnouts.

"I'd welcome that," said Jim Watkins, chairman of the York County Democratic Party. "We'll pick up some percentage points just because of his (Spratt's) activities. The more campaigns you have working to get out the vote, the better you are."

Spratt, of York, has $387,000 cash on hand, according to the most recent filing reports.

The S.C. Republican Party also would welcome a challenger "because John Spratt and his liberal colleagues have driven Congressional approval ratings to all-time lows by playing cynical games with the most important issues of the day," said spokesman Rob Godfrey.

Spencer said he is reaching out to potential donors this week in hopes of figuring out how much campaign money might be available.

"So far I haven't heard back from everybody," he said. "With the decision coming, I need to know where they stand on this."