Just when you thought America was done with elections for a while, another race has succeeded in garnering the attention of the national media, spawning a series of attacks and negative ads, and transfixing the attention of political junkies everywhere.
What’s unique about the special election to fill the vacant House of Representatives seat in South Carolina is that it features two candidates with national recognition, bringing it a level of attention rarely seen in House elections. Republican Mark Sanford, whose second term as South Carolina governor was marred by the revelation of an extramarital affair and a very public divorce, will face businesswoman Elizabeth Colbert-Busch, who, despite a lengthy resume of her own, is most famous for being the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert.
The election began when Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) resigned his Senate seat to become president of the Heritage Foundation, prompting Governor Nikki Haley to appoint Rep. Tim Scott (R) to the vacant seat in the upper chamber. The special election next Tuesday, May 7 will determine whether Sanford or Colbert-Busch will fill Scott’s empty House seat representing South Carolina’s First Congressional District.
Sanford has represented the district before; he served three terms in the ’90s before winning the Governor’s Mansion in 2002. He was popular while governor, earning a well-respected profile in the Republican party and frequently cited as a possible 2012 Presidential candidate. A tireless advocate of fiscal conservatism, he once brought live pigs into the chambers of the South Carolina House of Representatives to highlight his opposition to pork-barrel spending.
The revelation of Sanford’s affair in 2009 marked one of the more embarrassing and public demolitions of a political career. Under the pretext of hiking the Appalachian Trail, Sanford snuck down to Argentina to meet his lover, Maria Belen Chapur. After the media broke the story of their affair, Sanford admitted to it. His wife, Jenny Sanford, filed for divorce. To make matters worse, Sanford admitted to using state funds to finance his trip to Argentina, but promised to reimburse taxpayers in full. To this day, it remains controversial whether Sanford broke any laws during the scandal.
Colbert-Busch, by comparison, does not have any major scandals in her past; her biggest disadvantage is running as a Democrat in one of the most Republican states in America. She has sought to identify with South Carolina’s tradition of strong fiscal conservatism by highlighting her background as a businesswoman. She has worked in many positions, in both the public and private sectors, relating to the Port of Charleston and the commerce that flows through it. The economy of the First Congressional District derives in no small part from the port. She currently sits on the board of the Charleston Chamber of Commerce, which oversees port operations.
Colbert-Busch’s experience and connection with the port could prove beneficial in South Carolina, which was hit hard by the recession and continues to suffer unemployment above the national average. In addition, her campaign has benefitted from the profile of her brother, who has fundraised with her and brought millions of dollars into her war chest. National Democrats have also taken an interest in the race, seeing it as a prime off-year pickup opportunity and one-step closer to their ultimate goal of House control.
Since this is a special election and no other House races are being run, balance of power is no longer an issue. This race will not tip control of the House, making Republicans more willing to vote for Democrats and vice versa — the polarizing effects of the uncertainty surrounding balance of power are gone in this race, making the outcome a more accurate reflection of voters’ feelings about the candidates. This could prove fatal for Mark Sanford, as he will benefit less from the Republican label in a very conservative state.
Sanford’s best bet, then, is to tie Colbert-Busch with national Democrats, such as Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi, who are deeply unpopular in the state. His campaign has pursued this angle — at one point having Sanford debate a cardboard cutout of Pelosi in the place of Colbert-Busch. The money flowing in from national Democrats who want to see Republicans upset on their own turf has helped this argument considerably.
Democrats, though, have their own ammunition to level at Mark Sanford. In the 2012 campaign, Democrats across the nation built a significant part of their messaging on the charge that Republicans were insensitive to women’s issues. Whether that is true or not, this election plays right into that narrative: a former governor who cheated on his wife faces off against a successful woman. The fear of being associated with Sanford, who polls abysmally among women, has led national Republicans to withdraw financial support for his campaign.
Right now, Sanford’s party affiliation and strong tradition of fiscal conservatism are his major strengths. Colbert-Busch has tried to turn that strength into a weakness, drawing attention to her moderate positions on conservative issues such as the national deficit and veterans’ affairs. She has been quick to criticize Obamacare, calling the health care overhaul “extremely problematic.” She also took the opportunity to hit Sanford on his own turf during a debate on Monday night. “When we talk about fiscal spending and we talk about protecting the taxpayers, it doesn’t mean you take that money we saved and leave the country for a personal purpose,” she said, referencing the 2009 scandal.
Whether the moderate image she presents is an accurate representation of her political views or simply a campaign tactic to make her more palatable to South Carolina conservatives is an open question. Judging by the competitiveness of the race, though, her messaging seems to be working.
Still, the First Congressional District is a Republican stronghold. Before being appointed to the Senate, Rep. Tim Scott won in 2012 with 65 percent of the vote. Mitt Romney also won by a wide margin, carrying every county in the district but populous Charleston County, which he lost only narrowly. In order to win, Colbert-Busch must expand Democratic support beyond the urban center of Charleston into more traditionally Republican areas. It won’t be an easy challenge — according to political statistician Nate Silver, South Carolina is one of the least “swingiest” states in the nation, meaning as a red state it is highly unlikely to vote for a candidate of the other party.
A recent poll by the liberal firm Public Policy Polling had Colbert-Busch leading by a nine-point margin. On paper this looks impressive, but poll numbers don’t always translate into election results. The First Congressional District has a sizeable Black minority, which forms the base of Democratic Party support in South Carolina. The problem for Colbert-Busch is that minority voters tend to have much lower turnout rates in off-year elections when there is no Presidential candidate at the top of the ticket. While she may be doing well in the polls, Colbert-Busch will have to actually get voters to the polling stations on election day if she wants to translate her healthy poll numbers into a victory.
At a time that Republicans are trying to improve their poll numbers among women and minority voters, Sanford is not the best standard-bearer for the party. The dead heat that this race has become shows that Republicans can even lose in their strongholds, given the right set of circumstances. This is not a sign of changing politics in South Carolina, but more of weariness with embattled establishment Republican candidates like Mark Sanford. The ascension of young, diverse Republican politicians like Sen. Tim Scott and Gov. Nikki Haley in the state demonstrate the beginning of an evolution of the Republican Party, one more appealing to women and minority voters. Mark Sanford is hardly the ideal face of this evolution, which is why national Republicans have run away from his campaign.
On the Democratic side, a Colbert-Busch victory next week would be a major win for Democrats looking to expand their appeal into the deep-red American South. While other Democrats, such as actress Ashley Judd, who briefly mulled a run against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY.) have failed in the South, Colbert-Busch has campaigned on a distinct brand of moderate liberalism with apparent appeal in the region. Her problem, though, will be a competitive election every two years from here on out — and not all her opponents will have the weaknesses of Mark Sanford.
Does it matter who wins next week’s election, which right now is a tossup? It could. The winning party will get bragging rights, of course, but in the end South Carolina will remain a deeply Republican state, and Elizabeth Colbert-Busch, should she win, will become one of those cross-party anomalies that are becoming so rare in the U.S. Congress.