Politics & Government

Wilson, Miller spend at brisk pace

WASHINGTON - Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson and likely Democratic challenger Rob Miller are already waging an expensive, high-profile campaign that's gone national almost a year out from the November election.

During the last quarter of 2009, when most congressional campaigns were barely off the ground, Wilson and Miller spent more than $835,000 combined.

That figure is nearly 20 times the amount they spent two years ago during the same period of their first contest, which Wilson won by a 54-46 percent margin.

Despite the spending spree, Wilson ended 2009 with $2.34 million in his campaign coffers, while Miller closed the year with $1.68 million in cash on hand.

Thanks to the national attention from Wilson's Sept. 9 "You lie!" yell at President Barack Obama, the Wilson-Miller race is already the most expensive U.S. House contest ever in South Carolina, and it's on pace to challenge the richest in the nation's history.

Over the last three months of 2009, Wilson spent $612,698 - $210,088 more than he raised in that quarter, and 14 times the amount he spent during the same period in the 2008 campaign.

The two candidates' campaign expenditures paid for a dizzying array of fundraising experts, field consultants, researchers, Web gurus, direct-mail firms, video producers, speechwriters and other political contractors.

Over the year's final three months, the two men bought dozens of plane tickets to fly to fund-raisers and speaking engagements around the country.

Asked why he's held recent fundraisers in New York City, Chicago and Dallas, Miller avoided the question.

"This race is about South Carolina and the kind of representation that the people of the 2nd Congressional District deserve to have fighting for them in Washington," he told McClatchy.

Since his outburst at Obama during the president's televised prime-time address to Congress, Wilson has become one of the most sought-after campaigners for Republican candidates.

Despite his newfound fame and far-flung travels, Wilson insists that he still loves representing his 2nd Congressional District and puts its needs first.

"My ambition is to be the best congressman from the 2nd District I can be," Wilson said. "I'm just grateful for the support I've received. It sounds like a broken record, but I do not take the voters in the 2nd District for granted."

Wilson, though, has traveled to more than eight states to address Republican groups or campaign with GOP candidates.

"It's invigorating to go around the country and find that there are so many people who share the same enthusiasm for change in November," Wilson said.

Wilson, from Springdale, spent $151,251 on direct mail in the last quarter of 2009 - more than many U.S. House candidates spend over an entire two-year cycle. His aides insist that the bulk of it went to homes in the 2nd District.

Wilson correctly notes that the national Democratic Party and its allied interest groups have made him a target.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party's main election arm for this fall, last month placed the Wilson-Miller race on its list of top 17 U.S. House contests.

The DCCC has Wilson in its cross-hairs. On Thursday, it put out a release accusing him of hypocrisy after he voted against a Democratic measure to require that all new entitlement benefits and tax cuts be accompanied by spending cuts to offset their costs.

The Democrats mock Wilson's new status as a darling of conservatives across the country.

"It's increasingly clear that Joe Wilson would rather be a national right-wing celebrity than a congressman from South Carolina," said Jesse Ferguson, a DCCC spokesman.

Even though South Carolina's 12.6 percent unemployment rate is among the nation's highest, the home state of Wilson and Miller is missing out on most of their campaign spending bonanza.

Of the $612,195 Wilson spent in the last quarter of 2009, only $104,195 of it - 17.4 percent - stayed in South Carolina.

Miller, of Beaufort, spent $223,156 in the year's last three months, with $41,975 remaining instate.

A huge chunk of change from Wilson - $164,567 - went to David All, a Washington-based, self-described conservative IT ace who's helped Republicans close the technology gap that Obama opened in his 2008 presidential race.

Wilson hired All within 48 hours of his now-famous "You lie!" yell at Obama on Sept. 9 as the president addressed a joint session of Congress on prime-time television.

As angry Democrats poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into Miller's campaign coffers, All came to Wilson's rescue.

All quickly set up Wilson fund-raising accounts on Facebook, Twitter, redstate.com and other conservative Web sites. The new-media guru arranged for Wilson to make videos and orchestrated a makeover in which the congressman portrayed himself as a victim of liberal attacks.

Within days, conservative activists who saw Wilson as a hero for having rebuked Obama opened their wallets, enabling him to surpass Miller's fundraising surge and raise $2.65 million in three weeks. Miller raised $1.69 million during that time, for a stunning $4.34 million total over 21 days.

In a Jan. 28 posting on huffingtonpost.com, All said the Wilson strategy he'd overseen was the new high-tech model for Republican candidates everywhere.

"Rather than booking TV interviews with hostile mainstream media reporters to explain his case, Wilson utilized direct media to speak directly with millions of Americans," All said. "He used Facebook and Twitter to fight back against the attack of his critics, and took time to film short videos to keep his supporters up to speed and thank them for their encouragement."

Today, almost five months after his outburst, Wilson has 13,744 followers on twitter.com, more than all but eight members of Congress.

Immediately after Obama's State of the Union address to Congress last month the congressman did a live rebuttal on Facebook.com, fielding questions from supporters across the country.

Miller, a former Marine Corps captain who served in Iraq, has run a sort of stealth campaign, meeting business and community leaders in private but holding few public events, in contrast with the ubiquitous Wilson.

Lindsay Zoeller, Miller's campaign manager, said taxpayers fund Wilson's appearances in the district because they're made in his official guise as a congressman.

"It's very easy to campaign on the taxpayer's dime," Zoeller said. "Unlike Wilson, Rob spends almost every day here in South Carolina, meeting with small business owners, religious leaders and community officials."

In response to criticism from Wilson operatives, Miller and his aides declined to release a record of his recent appearances.

On Saturday, Miller spoke to 50 people at the monthly meeting of the Lexington County Democratic Party at the West Columbia-Cayce Library in West Columbia.

According to Miller's twitter.com account, he ate lunch Feb. 4 with community leaders at Anthony's Restaurant in Barnwell; met well-wishers Jan. 28 at Julienne's Expresso Cafe in Hampton; joined diners the same day at Duke's BBQ in Ridgeland; and attended a Martin Luther King Day ceremony unveiling a historical marker in Columbia.

Miller said he's on track to take down Wilson in November.

"We've spent a lot of time building our campaign in South Carolina," Miller said. "We're exactly where we want to be. We will continue to fundraise very aggressively."

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