Not too long ago, Rep. Joe Wilson — the South Carolina Republican who famously shouted “You lie!” during President Obama's September 2009 address to a joint session of Congress — was Enemy Number One for angry Democrats. Within moments of Wilson's outburst, groups on the left, led by MoveOn.org, began a furious “Say No to Joe” drive to raise money for Wilson's Democratic opponent, Beaufort businessman Rob Miller.
The cash poured in — $1 million, then $2 million, then $3 million — and anger around the country mounted against Wilson, who has represented South Carolina's 2nd Congressional District since 2001. Even though the MoveOn campaign spurred a pro-Wilson countercampaign, it seemed the congressman might be in serious trouble.
Not any more. With three weeks to go before the election, Wilson appears headed toward a fifth term in Congress, with the days of “You lie!” if not forgotten, at least behind him. Internal polls indicate Wilson leads Miller by about the same margin as 2008, the first time the two men ran against each other. Back then, Wilson defeated Miller by 54 percent to 46 percent; this year, campaign sources believe, Wilson's lead might be a tad larger. The Cook Political Report rates the district a solid Republican seat.
It's been a race like none other in South Carolina. The two candidates have raised about $8 million — $3.5 million for Miller and $4.5 million for Wilson. That's by far the most expensive House contest in the state's history. One Wilson aide calls it “hyperactive” — a campaign with not just more money, but more volunteers, more negative ads, more news coverage, more intensity, more everything.
It might seem odd to outsiders, but the “You lie!” outburst has been more a backdrop than an issue in itself. Asked if he regrets what he did, Wilson quickly answers, “Absolutely.” “It was a town hall moment,” he maintains, with himself in the out-of-character role of angry constituent. “I am a gentleman, and I apologized within one hour,” Wilson says. “The president accepted my apology.”
One area where Wilson has suffered undeniable damage is with black voters. South Carolina's 2nd District is about one-third African-American — a pretty large number for a Republican district. It's unlikely many have forgotten, or forgiven, Wilson's high-profile show of disrespect for the country's first black president.
Still, the major issue in the race is what it is everywhere else: jobs. (Unemployment in South Carolina is 11 percent, well above the national average.) Wilson has attacked Democratic programs as job killers and worked hard to tie Miller to party leaders in Washington. It's an effective strategy; a recent Wilson survey of the district shows House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's favorable rating at 26 percent, with her unfavorable rating at 55 percent.
Miller, a Marine veteran who served two tours in Iraq, knows this is a terrible year to look like a liberal, especially in South Carolina. He has stayed away from the most unpopular parts of the national Democratic agenda and even tried to maneuver to Wilson's right by criticizing the Republican lawmaker's vote in support of the Troubled Asset Relief Program. So far, it hasn't closed the gap.
Miller's supporters have become an issue, too. Wilson has demanded Miller return about $370,000 in campaign contributions that have come through MoveOn, reminding South Carolinians that the Internet activist group was behind the infamous ad referring to Army Gen. David Petraeus as “General Betray Us.”
Wilson's first attack ad featured Marine Maj. Gen. Jim Livingston, a Medal of Honor recipient who says his “blood boiled” when he saw the Petraeus ad. “Now MoveOn.org is meddling in our politics here in South Carolina,” Livingston says in the ad, asking Miller to have “the strength and courage to do the right thing and return that money.” So far, Miller has not done so.
Miller still has the support of the left, but hopes for victory are fading. In what appears to be a Republican year, it is very, very unlikely that a popular four-term GOP congressman will lose his seat in South Carolina. Wilson is cautious, warning that Democrats could still “pull an upset,” but at the same time, he adds: “I agree with George Soros. I believe an avalanche is coming.”
So Wilson will likely survive. What would it say if he were re-elected? “That Joe Wilson is the person people thought he was,” Wilson says — that is, the serious and committed lawmaker they knew before his “You lie!” moment.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.