Editor's Note: In the final 100 days before Election Day, CNN has been profiling one race at random each day from among the nation's top 100 House races, which we've dubbed "The CNN 100." Read the full list here. Today's featured district is:
South Carolina 5th – Rep. John Spratt (D) is seeking a 15th term
Primary: June 8, 2010
Location: North-central South Carolina
Days until Election Day: 46
(CNN) – Taking over South Carolina Democrat John Spratt's seat is part of the calculus for Republicans to win back the House, but the symbolism of knocking off one of the most senior House Democrats makes this race a marquee matchup this November.
Spratt's position as House Budget Committee chairman - something he campaigned on in past elections - could turn out to be a major political liability at a time when public frustration with record deficits and federal spending is at an all time high.
South Carolina's mostly rural 5th district, which runs along the northern edge of the border with North Carolina, leans Republican. Polls taken earlier this summer show the race tied. The district voted for John McCain by seven points in 2008.
"Spratt is the poster child as to why Democrats are vulnerable this year," said Andy Sere, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee told CNN.
Spratt acknowledged this year's environment is tough, but he told CNN this week that competitive elections are nothing new for him, saying, "Republicans have been gunning for me since I was elected." But the 67-year-old Democrat also quickly said he was "bullish" on his chances of returning for a 15th term next year.
Democratic colleagues stress that Spratt has mounted an aggressive effort and note he's a veteran campaigner who survived the GOP wave in 1994. He's trying to beat back the anti-incumbent mood by touting the jobs he's brought to the district and his long record of constituent service. Spratt boasted that he spent the August break visiting all 14 counties in his district.
In a telephone interview Thursday with CNN, Spratt's GOP challenger, state Sen. Mick Mulvaney, acknowledged that the incumbent did earn a reputation for his personal approach to helping the people at home but says the senior Democrat's focus changed in recent years.
"I think that was great back when he wasn't doing anything controversial," he said.
Mulvaney argued that Spratt's votes for top Democratic priorities like health care reform and cap and trade show he's out of touch with the people in his district, which he describes as "very conservative."
"It's almost like he's gone into hiding in terms of his voting record," Mulvaney said.
The Republican's playbook, like many other challengers across the country, has been to link Spratt to national leaders like Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Barack Obama, who he says are highly unpopular in reliably red South Carolina.
Mulvaney also maintains that as the top Democrat on the budget committee, Spratt bears some responsibility for the flow of red ink from a federal budget that's out of balance.
"Absolutely, people hold him responsible for the government not introducing a budget for the first time in history," he said. He also points out that Spratt's budget committee was the final panel that approved the health care bill in the House, which has not been popular with voters. An ad sponsored by the American Future Fund, an outside group supporting the Republican, mentions Spratt's committee post and shows pictures of him with Pelosi.
But Spratt may be breaking with the president and Pelosi on one key issue Congress is wrestling with now - what to do about tax cuts that are expiring at the end of the year. Obama and congressional leaders want just to renew those tax breaks for those making $250,000 and under. Spratt said he could support a one- or two-year extension for all of them, including those tax cuts for the wealthy.
The senior Democrat's strategy in South Carolina has been to emphasize his record at leveraging federal resources and protecting the district's military installations. His latest campaign commercial shows a map of the area and tallies the number of specific road and business projects he secured.
Democrats are also contrasting Spratt's deep roots in the district with Mulvaney's. They point out that Mulvaney's business career started in North Carolina, and his political tenure in South Carolina is relatively new. Mulvaney dismissed this was an issue in the campaign and said his time in the state has given him a voting record he's been running on.
Both national parties are investing in the race, but television time can be expensive since the district stretches across four media markets in the state. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already reserved air time for in television advertising for this fall. They are also lending organizational support to help boost turnout at the polls. The NRCC has named Mulvaney one of it's "young guns" and is also planning to spend several hundred thousand dollar on the airwaves.
Spratt also holds a roughly 3-to-1 advantage in fundraising. While Mulvaney admits there's a cash disparity, he's confident that as long as he's able to have enough money to pay for television advertising in the final stretch of the race to get his message out, money won't be the deciding factor.
Follow Deirdre Walsh on Twitter: @deirdrewalshcnn