Conservatives in U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson's district are facing facts: They're angry that he voted for the 2008 Wall Street bailout, but they know opposing him could send his Democratic opponent to Congress.
Exhibit A is GOP gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley, who declared in April that Wilson should "absolutely not" get another term but said Thursday she now supports his re-election.
"This is about electing the most conservative candidate," Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said. "In November, Congressman Wilson is clearly the most conservative of those two candidates."
Wilson, best known for hollering "you lie" last year while President Obama was addressing Congress, is in a rematch against Democrat Rob Miller.
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Wilson beat him two years ago with 54 percent of the vote, and this year's contest is one of the nation's most expensive U.S. House races, mostly because of the money that poured in to both him and Miller after Wilson shouted at Obama. Wilson's most recent campaign finance report, filed May 19, shows he's raised nearly $4 million while Miller has raised nearly $2.4 million. Their next reports are due next week.
Jane Kenny, organizer of the Tea Party Patriots of Bluffton at the foot of Wilson's district near Beaufort and Hilton Head Island, said there's no question tea party activists are unhappy about Wilson's bailout vote.
But, she said, "at this point in time we have a choice between Mr. Miller and Mr. Wilson. Mr. Miller is telling us he supports the Obama agenda, so by default, Wilson is our man."
As for the bailout, formally called the Troubled Asset Relief Program, Wilson said votes were gathered as banks were on the verge of failing and legislators were told the money would be used much like the 1980s federal thrift rescue plan. But he said it morphed into something that he never supported, including forcing banks to become partly government owned.
Rightly or not, it is remembered now as the bank bailout that bypassed main streets and made Wall Street wealthier as it sparked a series of big spending measures - including car and mortgage incentives, state spending bailouts, federal stimulus projects and the national health care overhaul.
Haley, in an April interview with The Associated Press, said it touched off an avalanche of spending. When asked whether any member of Congress who voted for it should be re-elected, Haley said: "No. Absolutely not."
What about Joe Wilson? "Absolutely not," said Haley, a three-term state representative who lives in Wilson's district, which he has represented since 2001.
Nonetheless, Haley won't vote for a Democrat, Godfrey said.
"It's no secret that Nikki strongly opposed the Wall Street bailout, and she has been critical of both Democrats and Republicans who voted for it," Godfrey said. "But when you look at the totality of the record and all of the key issues, there is no comparison between Joe Wilson's conservative record and Rob Miller's liberal positions. So, yes, Nikki is very comfortable supporting Joe Wilson's re-election."
For his part, Miller has been beating the bailout drum for weeks. "I find it completely unacceptable," said Miller. If there was a bailout, it should have gone to local banks to lend in a district plagued by high unemployment, he said.
But Wilson said voters should look at everything he's done.
"It's my view that they should look at my whole record," he said.
The bailout backlash has helped end two South Carolina political careers this year. U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis lost his seat after voting for the Wall Street aid and U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett's eventual support for it was used against him in the GOP primary he lost to Haley.
But Greenville tea party organizer Bill Rhodes said Wilson's "you lie" shout at Obama's address made him a tea party hero. It had people chanting "you lie" as they protested the federal health insurance overhaul in Washington earlier this year.
"Because he at least stood up to him, that's a feather in his cap," Rhodes said.