CHARLESTON, SC — More than former S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford’s chance at political redemption is riding on the outcome of Tuesday’s special election for the state’s 1st District congressional seat, political observers say.
A win for Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch could ignite hopes that S.C. Democrats again can compete against Republicans for congressional seats and statewide offices, and help them lay the groundwork for picking up support among Lowcountry voters in 2014.
A loss, some say, could emphasize just how difficult a statewide win for a Democrat will be.
A win in a heavily conservative district would be a “great shot in the arm” for the S.C. Democratic Party, said longtime Democratic consultant Lachlan McIntosh. “Even if it’s close, it shows we can compete with Republicans,” he added.
Democrats are eyeing the governor’s race in 2014, expecting a rematch between Gov. Nikki Haley, a Lexington Republican, and state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Kershaw Democrat.
Haley beat Sheheen 51 percent to 47 percent in 2010, with Haley taking the Upstate and much of the Lowcountry. Sheheen won in the Midlands and in Charleston County, the Lowcountry population center.
Colbert Busch and Sanford are competing to fill the seat left vacant by Republican Tim Scott’s appointment to the U.S. Senate after Jim DeMint resigned. Whoever wins will face another election in 2014.
Some Republican activists in the 1st District are not thrilled about Sanford’s candidacy. But if Sanford loses, they expect to easily reclaim the seat in 2014, said Scott Buchanan, a political scientist at The Citadel in Charleston.
A loss for Colbert Busch could hurt Democrats more. “If the Democrats cannot win against someone with the baggage of Mark Sanford, it’s pretty dismal in the immediate future for Democrats across the state,” Buchanan said.
Forget the tea leaves
S.C. political observers say a win for Colbert Busch would mean very little for predicting how the district will vote in the future. Special elections — driven by a candidate’s ability to motivate voters, including party faithful — are not reliable gauges for other elections, they say.
The 1st District race also has unique circumstances.
Colbert Busch is the sister of television star Stephen Colbert, who has given the race air time on his Comedy Central show and campaigned for his sister. With support from national Democrats, Colbert Busch’s campaign has outspent Sanford’s by a wide margin, a point Republicans have tried to turn against her.
Sanford, a savvy campaigner whose Tea-Party-before-there-was-a-Tea-Party brand of fiscal conservatism was wildly popular among the GOP base, has had his share of campaign challenges beyond asking voters to forgive his transgressions while governor, including an affair with an Argentinian woman and ethics violations.
Sanford’s camp also has had to deal with a recently surfaced charge of trespassing on his ex-wife Jenny Sanford’s property.
How much that charge has hurt Sanford will be clearer Tuesday.
Polls immediately after the news of Sanford’s trespassing charge showed Colbert Busch with a 9-point lead, but a survey released Sunday night showed Sanford with a slight edge.
Sanford’s past is the only reason Colbert Busch, who Sanford has tried to tie to labor unions and U.S. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, is competitive in the district, Buchanan said. “Everything being held equal, she nor any other Democrat would stand a chance.”
Laying the 2014 groundwork
A Colbert Busch win could give Democrats a “toe-hold” along the coast and in Charleston, one of the state’s most populated areas and a key to winning a statewide office, said Dave Woodard, a GOP consultant and Clemson University political scientist.
A Colbert Busch win could lay the foundation for Sheheen to campaign in the Lowcountry, where there are potential swing voters more interested in fiscal principles than social issues.
“That’s a base to build from in one of the biggest population areas along the coast,” Woodard said.
Gov. Haley, whose travel schedule shows frequent stops in the Lowcountry, also sees potential “swing” votes in the area, said Tim Pearson, one of Haley’s political consultants.
Pearson said a Colbert Busch win is unlikely. But if she prevails, it will have little impact on Haley’s campaign, which will focus on her record and on reaching voters around the state, he said.
‘Close is saying something’
The S.C. Democratic Party’s newly elected chairman, Jaime Harrison, said the fact that the 1st District race is “razor thin” means Democrats are capable of competing in a district that went to GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney by 18 percentage points.
That means there will be a heated contest for the district in 2014.
“Democrats win regardless of the result of the election,” Harrison said.
“The fact that Colbert Busch even makes it close is saying something,” said McIntosh, the Democratic consultant. “She’s got a great chance.”
That will help recruit candidates for statewide and local races, McIntosh said.
But a loss could be hard felt by Democrats, some say.
“If she loses, it gets harder to recruit the next candidate for these races,” especially “if a seemingly good candidate like her doesn’t win,” said University of South Carolina political scientist Mark Tompkins.
“If Sanford wins, the Democratic Party is in real trouble in South Carolina,” Woodard said. “It’s hard to get good candidates to run if they know they’re going to lose because people are going to pull the ‘R’ no matter who’s on the ballot.”
Sanford’s ‘metaphorical shower’
Colbert Busch faces the prospect of being a one-term congresswoman if she wins Tuesday.
A Sanford loss would lead to a “long line of folks willing to take (Colbert Busch) on in 2014,” Tompkins said, adding that could help the Democrat. “Inadvertently, a bunch of candidates competing for the seat could create a similar thing we had this time” — with a crowded field of GOP contenders wearing each other out.
If Sanford wins, he will likely hold the seat, Tompkins added.
He will have a year to “get married” and let voters forget his flaws.
A Sanford win will be “like a metaphorical shower for him,” Tompkins said. “It washes away some of the irritating thoughts we have about Mark Sanford.”
Reach Self at (803) 771-8658.