FULL-CONTACT PRIMARY

03.18.13

South Carolina Street Fight in First District Congressional Primary

The return of Mark Sanford. The debut of Stephen Colbert’s sister Elizabeth. And 16 other candidates! John Avlon reports from Charleston on today’s congressional primary free-for-all.

South Carolina politics is a full-contact spectator sport, and the 18-candidate special election on Tuesday is shaping up to be a scrum for the ages, with low blows and high expectations. This is an old-fashioned street fight in a state where the Tea Party, evangelicals, and the New South all intersect.

On the crowded Republican ballot, former governor Mark Sanford is on a redemption tour, trying to fight his way back from the disgrace of hiking the Appalachian Trial with a woman other than his (now former) wife. He faces 15 other Republicans in the conservative First District, including the self-funded high school teacher son of Ted Turner and a bevy of current and former state legislators who are busy lobbing grenades and robo-calls at the presumptive frontrunners, each trying to out-conservative the other. With no one likely to win 50 percent on the first ballot, a bloody cage-match runoff in April is all but guaranteed.

The Democratic field is a comparatively tame two-person race, dominated by the national media love for the only candidate whose volunteer wall features multiple photos of Stephen Colbert: his sister Elizabeth Colbert-Busch. And surprisingly, this is one South Carolina congressional race where the Democrat might not be DOA on Election Day—especially if the GOP nominee is Sanford.

Early Monday morning at the Marina Variety Store and Seafood Restaurant on the Charleston waterfront, there was the former governor wearing a gray fleece and khakis, shaking hands, with an NBC television crew in tow. Sanford’s been working the First District for 20 years, and waitresses and patrons here don’t call him “Governor” but “Mark.” He is unfailingly polite and contrite, still slightly awkward with the artifice of campaigning after all these years. He nods obediently when diners remind him that all politics is local and is never happier than when given the opportunity to unleash his inner policy wonk, promising that he can deliver the kind of instant seniority on Capitol Hill that the other candidates can’t claim.

“I’ve been blown away by level of human grace that’s out there,” Sanford tells me after meeting folks at the Marina. “There’s a silent fraternity—or sorority, as the case may be—of people who have felt pain in their life … They’ve seen hardship, not necessarily self-induced, as was the case with me, but hardship in their life. And for the first time, I get the Bill Clinton ‘I feel your pain’ thing. Before, I was an analytical numbers guy. I could walk through and say, ‘This is why I think intellectually this makes sense,’ or ‘We shouldn’t be doing this.’ But there’s a whole other level of connection in an emotional sense that I never was aware of even existing, based on empathy.”

But other conservative candidates aren’t into the whole forgiveness thing, and they’re determined to stop Sanford’s attempt to be the next Comeback Kid.

“I’m shocked he’s running,” state Sen. Larry Grooms says of Sanford. “I supported him when he ran for Congress and governor, and I was the first legislator to call on him to resign ... They want someone like Mark Sanford, but not Mark Sanford.”

“There is a zero percent chance that a Democrat wins the general election—unless Mark Sanford is the nominee, because our polls show that he’s got a real problem with women.”

Grooms is a veteran of 15 years in the state capitol, a man who considers himself equally at home at a Tea Party rally and an evangelical conference. That experience is not necessarily an asset in the current environment, where newcomer Teddy Turner is firing off ads directed at career politicians. “[Former senator] Jim DeMint advised me to respond to attacks that I’m a career politician by saying that I’m a career conservative—and very few can say that,” says Groom. “I’ve got a record of accomplishment over 15 years in the state Senate, moving contentious bills forward so they can be law.”

But Grooms has put forward some contentious ads of his own, using what he acknowledges is the risky trick of humor, unleashing robo-calls that use a President Obama impersonator to endorse anyone but Grooms. “You know what makes me mad? The thought of Larry Grooms in Congress,” says the Obama sound-alike. “If Grooms loses, I can keep spending. And that makes me very happy.”

All the negativity can backfire, however, especially among an electorate accustomed to watching hard-fought presidential primaries up close every four years. “I’ve been a little turned off by some of the negative mailings I’ve received over the last couple of weeks,” says Larry Burtsch on Meeting Street. “All of the ones I’ve received have been anti-Turner, and it seems like people are spending an awful lot of time and money going against him. So that tells me he’s got something good going on.”

Former state senator John Kuhn, a libertarian-minded fiscal conservative, is one of the candidates pushing back on Teddy Turner’s attacks on “career politicians” with mailers that detail, complete with footnotes, how Turner is “a Democrat running as a Republican if you list his positions.”

Kuhn sees Sanford as a dangerous nominee for the South Carolina GOP, but he accepts—like many—that the real contest on Tuesday is for who comes in second. “For sure Sanford’s going to make the run-off because of his base—around 30 percent,” says Kuhn. “But there is a zero percent chance that a Democrat wins the general election—unless Mark Sanford is the nominee, because our polls show that he’s got a real problem with women.”

And that is Colbert-Busch’s hope. Best known nationally as Stephen Colbert’s sister, she is perhaps best known locally as the chairwoman of the Maritime Association Port of Charleston—a confident figure who shows the backbone that comes with growing up one of 11 children. A first-time candidate, she has her message discipline down, running against Washington.

“Our congressional leadership in Washington has stopped talking to each other,” she says after a bevy of interviews at her West Ashley campaign headquarters, housed in a shopping center. “We have a 12 percent approval rating for our congressional leadership from across the state. It’s become a country of extremes up in Washington, D.C., and candidly, our constituents are tired of it. It’s time for a change. It’s time to talk to each other.”

Democrats are afterthoughts in the First District of South Carolina, but the prospect of a national fundraising base and oversized youth and female turnout—particularly if Sanford gets the nomination—has Colbert-Busch forecasting an upset in the making.

When I ask her what her positions are on social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, she studiously doesn’t answer. “Social issues are very important, very important,” she says. “But let’s talk about what District 1 wants to talk about. They want to talk about where the jobs are. You know we just went up one 1 percentage point in unemployment, and the country’s going down … Jobs don’t have a party. Education doesn’t have a party. Benefits don’t have a party. They want somebody who’s going to go to the plate for them.” Then, switching effortlessly to the first person plural, she adds: “We’re going to listen. We’re going to ask questions. We’re going to seek solutions and we’re going to take responsibility, and we’re going turn this thing around.”

For anyone paying close attention to the mixed message of the 2012 election—and the changing demographics of the First District, this language is designed to resonate.

It matches the wishes of Mike Altine, the chef and co-owner of the Marina Variety Store, who makes it clear that he is not necessarily backing any specific candidate. “It’s been a rough, rough four years economically, and that’s just because of what’s going on up in Washington. It hasn’t been stable,” he says, taking aim at the incumbents in Congress. “I think they have their own agendas. They’re not looking out for you and me. I don’t think they’re looking out for the economy. If they were, they’d be working together. Bottom line: they’d make it happen.”

Frustration with politics as usual continues to animate the electorate just five months after the last presidential contest, as Washington seems unable to break its ideological stalemate. Even in South Carolina, the partisan stereotypes evaporate up close in favor of a candidate’s ability to connect and articulate common sense.

There are no atheists in foxholes and no experts who can predict who will come in second in a 16-person primary. A few points—or a few hundred votes—could make the difference. But this is the only congressional election in the country right now, and if Sanford survives to face another Republican in the run-off and then the winner confronts Colbert-Busch, the citizens of the storied coastal First District will have a real race on their hands and a real choice in the general election. For the first time in years, the congressman won’t be de facto determined in the Republican primary, and the winner won’t be the candidate catering to the extremes but reaching out toward the center. And that, in red South Carolina, ought to get the two parties’ attention all the way back in Washington.