COLUMBIA — A political newcomer is giving two-decade incumbent U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson his most serious challenge yet, repeatedly outraising him in a district that hasn't elected a Democrat in 58 years.
Adair Ford Boroughs, a Forest Acres attorney, isn't fazed by the seemingly long odds. After all, her life's story is about using intellect and hard work to beat expectations.
The daughter of a cabinet maker and public school teacher, Boroughs launched her campaign last year on the football field of tiny Williston-Elko High where, 21 years earlier, she gave her valedictorian speech.
She touts those small-town roots on the campaign trail, noting she went to Furman University on a full scholarship, graduated from Stanford Law School with honors and — instead of taking a corporate job — went to work at the U.S. Department of Justice "going after tax cheats." She then clerked for a federal judge and started a nonprofit law firm for people who can't afford high-dollar legal help.
"Throughout my life, the Lord has seen fit to put in front of me work that needs to be done and say, 'Are you willing?' I have said 'yes,' and this campaign is no different," she said at the opening of the contest's only debate on Oct. 20 at River Bluff High School in Lexington.
The 40-year-old mother of two has outraised Wilson every quarter, collecting $2.4 million to his $1.5 million over the election cycle, despite, as she says repeatedly, not taking any money from corporate political action committees.
But Wilson, 73, of Springdale still has the obvious advantage in a district that spans the counties of Barnwell, Aiken and uber-conservative Lexington — where 40 percent of its registered voters live — as well as more GOP-leaning parts of Richland.
The 2nd District has voted Republican since 1965, when it became the first district in South Carolina since Reconstruction to flip from blue. And, unlike the coastal 1st District, which flipped back to blue two years ago, it hasn't seen nearly the influx of newcomers from Northeastern states.
Wilson, a former state senator and real estate attorney, first won the seat in a 2001 special election following the death of 30-year incumbent Floyd Spence, whom he'd worked for as a congressional aide.
His prior closest races were in 2008 and 2010, both against Marine veteran Rob Miller, when Wilson won with 53.7 percent and 53.5 percent of the vote, respectively.
Retired from the Army National Guard, Wilson sits on the House Armed Services Committee and is known for his staunch support of the military. He often notes all four of his sons, including state Attorney General Alan Wilson, also served in the military.
Normally a reliable backer of President Donald Trump, Wilson made clear at the debate he wants to maintain a military presence in Afghanistan, though adding "it doesn't need to be a big presence."
Trump tweeted earlier this month that he wants all troops home by Christmas from America's longest war following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
"Lightning's going to strike. This could be an issue I disagree with the president. I believe the global war on terror began in Afghanistan in a cave," Wilson said in response to a student's question at the debate. "So it’s important we complete our service. ... Al-Qaida is reduced, but it’s still there. We know their plans are to attack American families at home."
Boroughs, who points out her twin brother was a combat veteran in Iraq, said "we need a plan to draw down."
"Staying there forever indefinitely is not helping the situation," she said.
As for veterans' health care, she believes they should have the option to legally treat chronic pain and post-traumatic stress with marijuana. And while she shows willingness to buck her own party on fiscal issues, saying both parties are to blame for driving up the nation's debt, she's more in line with Democrats on social issues, such as abortion and immigration.
She scoffs at Trump's insistence on completing a wall along the Mexican border, saying the money should be redirected to securing ports of entry.
While she doesn't believe in open borders, she said, "we already have walls and fences on parts of the border where this really matters" and wants to offer a path to citizenship for immigrants already here.
Noting the district has been represented by just two men in 50 years, Boroughs promises she would term-limit herself to six years in Congress.
She would be the second woman to represent the district, though the first was elected in 1962, only to finish the 10 months remaining in her late husband's term.
Wilson said he supports term limits, too, but only if the limits applied to all members of Congress.
"If you only do it to yourself, you're making yourself a short-timer," Wilson said, adding that such a personal pledge is defeatist and "you'll never get a bill through."
While he proposed legislation to establish term limits while a state senator, it went nowhere. Such proposals never do, whether in the Legislature or Congress, as they rely on long-time politicians voting to cut off their own careers.