I chose not to spend much time discussing Rep. Joe Wilson’s outburst last week because that story was being covered in great detail elsewhere. But enough time has passed that we now have a clearer idea of the type of electoral damage Wilson has inflicted upon himself - enough to put South Carolina’s 2nd District on the 2010 map.
As has been documented elsewhere, Wilson has a history of controversial statements - few as verbally violent than his Iraq-related tirade against Rep. Bob Filner in 2002. But the coverage he has gotten from last week’s outburst is quite different: What he is generally being criticized for is the boorishness and disrespect of his remarks rather than their substance. (There is a lot to be said about the latter, but that’s not what will Wilson politically in his red district; if anything, Democrats are letting him win the policy argument: Reports now indicate that the White House, Max Baucus and Kent Conrad will seek to toughen the health care bill’s immigration-related provisions.)
As such, Wilson was bound to lose support in his district - even if SC-02 is conservative territory that gave George W. Bush a 21% victory. Public Policy Polling quickly sent a poll in the field and confirmed that there has been political damage: 62% of district voters disapprove of Wilson’s outburst, versus only 29%, and 49% say they are less likely to vote for him (35% say they are more likely). And most significantly, the poll finds Democratic challenger Rob Miller up within the MoE against Wilson, 44% to 43%.
Wilson might represent a conservative district, but he is not as safe as he needs to be to say whatever he wants with no fear of repercussions and Democrats targeting his district does not come out of the blue (it’s not like them suddenly going after Rep. Louie Gohmert, for instance). In 2008, Wilson already faced Miller in an unexpectedly competitive race: He was held to a career-low of 54%, with Miller getting 46%. And back in May, Miller’s willingness to seek a rematch had convinced me to leave the race on the list of House contests worth watching - albeit in a “potentially competitive’ category.
All of this said, a few caveats are needed - the first of them about the PPP poll, which should be taken with a grain of salt since it was conducted in the immediate aftermath of Wilson’s comments, at a time little else was talked about politically. By the time voters go to the polls next year, Wednesday’s events are bound to have lost their urgency, whether or not Democrats put much effort in reminding voters.
There are other reasons to think of SC-02 as very inhospitable territory for Democrats. As I mentioned above, it is a strongly conservative district that has been loyally Republican at the federal level; with Democrats facing a potentially tough environment in 2010, this is not the sort of seat in which they should have much of a chance next year. While it is true that 2008 was promising for Democrats - besides Miller, Obama came within 9% of McCain - this is one district in which changes in the electorate’s composition could have dramatic consequences: The boost in African-American turnout was a major reason for Miller and Obama’s strong SC-02 performance, but most people expect the share of black voters to be lower come 2010.
Finally, some of the Democrats’ South Carolina success in 2008 came from an element of surprise: Neither Wilson nor Rep. Brown in neighboring SC-01 expected to face a strong challenge, and they had not ran a competitive race in a decade or more. That made them far more vulnerable to unexpectedly feisty (and well-financed) Democratic challengers. That dynamic will not exist in 2010. (By the way, the DCCC suffered a huge blow to its SC-01 prospects in June when Linda Ketner announced she would not seek a rematch against Brown.)
And yet, there are just as many reasons to think that last week’s events helped Miller enough to guarantee a competitive race in 2010.
First, as I mentioned above, is the type of controversy this comments generated. While districts voters would likely forgive Wilson if he just made extremely right-wing statements, disrespecting the president is unlikely to sit well with moderate Republicans and independents, of which they should be just enough to put the incumbent in trouble.
Second is the fact that it looked fairly unlikely Democrats would concentrate on the district before Wilson’s outburst - but it’s now hard to see them not doing so, especially given that Miller raised over $1 million in the space of a few days. Miller might have come within 8% of defeating Wilson in 2008, but SC-02 is red enough that it would not just naturally go on top of the Democrats’ priority list. That makes Miller’s huge cash haul and the attention he has gotten far more valuable that it could be for an already established Democratic challenger.
For the same reason, we cannot compare the $1 million Wilson raised since Wednesday to the money Miller raised: With Wilson an incumbent and a well-established name with a decent campaign infrastructure, his money has less direct benefits than Miller’s.
Third, plenty of Republicans (starting with South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham) strongly condemned Wilson’s outburst. That should help Democrats blast Wilson as an extremist even by Republican standards and it should give fodder to their ads next year. The DCCC will get more advertisement fodder if the House does go ahead and vote to censure Wilson: That would provide a tangible and permanent stain on Wilson’s record that Miller would be able to use to convince voters this is an important issue. (A number of Republicans would be expected to join the Democratic majority, making it harder for Wilson to dismiss censure as a partisan vote.)
Fourth is the controversy’s timing. In 2008, Michelle Bachmann’s infamous “anti-American” rant generated a huge fundraising haul for her Democratic opponent, but this occurred so late in the cycle (mid-October 2008) that he was unable to use all of it, nor was he able to budget what he did use in the most effective ways. By contrast, Miller now has a very well-stocked bank account and very high name recognition in Democratic groups and liberal websites a whole year before the election; that should allow him to emerge as a top-tier contender, run ads introducing himself early, soften Wilson’s support over the course of many months and have the time to mount a strong infrastructure.
Indeed, Miller is the biggest winner of last week’s events. He can breath a huge sigh of relief that he had not waited before signaling he would run in 2010; had he not already announced his candidacy, he could have missed out on the money that poured on him over the past few days! Second, this pretty much guarantees Miller has a hold on the Democratic nomination: No one is going to want to enter a primary against such a well financed candidate.