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Defeat of U.S. Rep. Spratt adds uncertainty to fate of state's military bases, analysts say

COLUMBIA -- U.S. Rep. John Spratt's loss in Tuesday's election could make it more difficult for South Carolina to protect its military bases and land new missions, including new F-35 fighters for Sumter's Shaw Air Force Base and Beaufort's Marine Corps Air Station, experts say.

Spratt, defeated by Republican Mick Mulvaney, was the second-ranking Democrat on the House Armed Service Committee and chairman of the House Budget Committee.

With Spratt's defeat and the departure of three other veteran Republican congressmen, four of South Carolina's six congressmen will be freshmen when Congress convenes in January. That lack of seniority will weaken the state's clout in military matters, analysts say.

"The significance of that loss (Spratt) will be felt," said retired Maj. Gen. Thomas Olsen, executive director of the Sumter Base Defense Committee, a civilian group that helps with issues facing Shaw Air Force Base, which is in Spratt's district. "But it's not a death knell. We have two very well-experienced senators and the whip of the Democratic Party. And I think Mulvaney understands his role and he'll work out fine."

Studies have shown Shaw, Columbia's Fort Jackson and Eastover's McEntire Joint National Guard Base pump $7.1 billion a year into the Midlands economy. Military installations around Charleston add another $4.7 billion a year to the state's economy. And Beaufort's three installations add another $1.2 billion a year.

The state was creamed by 1990s base closings, losing the Charleston Navy base and Myrtle Beach Air Force Base. In 2005, however, with the help of the new S.C. Military Base Task Force and an energized congressional delegation, the Midlands did well, adding new missions for Fort Jackson and the Third Army to Shaw, resulting in 2,500 new military and civilian jobs.

Retired Maj. Gen. George Patrick, executive director of that task force, said losing a senior member of the Armed Services Committee does not help S.C. bases, but the loss might not hurt that much if the new congressmen are energized.

"Congressman Spratt was a great champion of Shaw, and we will miss his service and support," Patrick said. "But we didn't do very well in 1993 and 1995, and we had chairman of the armed services committees (in both the House and Senate) named (Floyd) Spence and (Strom) Thurmond and a junior senator named (Fritz) Hollings. We don't rule out the political nature of how decisions are made, but we've worked hard to balance that with focusing (the Pentagon) on the value of our installations here."

Some of those bases are vying now for new military roles.

Beaufort will learn Dec. 9 if it will land five squadrons of the new F-35 fighters at its Marine Corps Air Station. The city is in a battle with Cherry Point, N.C., for up to 88 jets, which carry with them about 1,500 jobs.

The Pentagon's top option calls for awarding eight squadrons to the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point and five to Beaufort. But Beaufort officials say North Carolina is pushing for all the squadrons.

If Beaufort does not get the new jets to replace its aging F/A-18s, the air station could be phased out. That base generates $615 million a year in economic impact.

Shaw also is seeking the F-35s. But a decision on where the Air Force will put its new fighters has been pushed back to 2015 or 2017.

All the S.C. bases also are vulnerable to being closed in the future. Military experts say that there will be more closings. It's a matter of when, not if.

"BRAC is designed to be apolitical," Patrick said, referring to the Base Realignment and Closing Commission. "When it gets to Congress, it's an up or down vote. So their (the new delegation's) political activism has to occur in a more informal environment."

Spratt's loss aside, South Carolina could gain some military clout from the Republican takeover of Congress.

U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson is on the House Armed Service Committee and will become a subcommittee chairman when the new GOP-controlled Congress is seated Jan. 20. His district includes Beaufort.

"I've already been in touch with Mick Mulvaney, and he and I will be coordinating a visit to Shaw," Wilson said. "We will be in contact with other new members of the delegation. And on military issues, there has been good bipartisan cooperation in the past with Spratt and with Congressman (James) Clyburn."

Mulvaney said he would like the new House members from South Carolina to go on the Shaw trip.

Gov.-elect Nikki Haley also has offered her assistance.

"Both the governor-elect and her husband, Michael, a military officer himself, are very concerned about the strength of our military bases in South Carolina," Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey wrote in an e-mail, "and she will communicate constantly with our federal delegation to make sure they remain strong. South Carolina has a proud and active military community, and Gov.-elect Haley is committed to keeping it that way."

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