Politics

04.03.13

South Carolina Special Election Has All the Makings of a Scandal-Filled Telenovela

A philandering former governor eager for redemption. A glamorous businesswoman trying to break into politics. The South Carolina special election is a must watch, writes John Avlon.

This is one local election that’s going to get national attention.

With Mark Sanford’s victory in the Republican runoff Tuesday night, South Carolina’s May 7 congressional special election will be packed with enough scandal, redemption, and gender-war themes to fill a telenovela. To sweeten the pot, polls show that the Democratic candidate, Elizabeth Colbert Busch (sister of talk-show host Stephen Colbert), might have a real shot at winning what has traditionally been a safe Republican seat. Fasten your seat belts—this is going to be a wild four-week ride.

The view from outside South Carolina too often sees Lowcountry politics as a strange circus, a perspective confirmed for some distant observers by the elevation of Mark Sanford from the Appalachian Trail–hiking governor to a serious contender for his old congressional seat. Holding his primary-night victory party at a barbecue joint called Sticky Fingers didn’t exactly help his cause to be taken seriously again.

But Sanford deserves to be taken seriously and seen as many of his former constituents see him—not as a stereotypical philandering Southern politician (à la David Vitter, Edwin Edwards, and Bill Clinton), but as an uncommonly unpretentious political figure who has a long record of fighting for fiscally conservative causes and freely admits his moral failing with the woman who is now his fiancée. He has been humbled and now exhibits an empathy for the fallen he did not possess previously. This is the dynamic that has driven Sanford’s resurgence—along with a campaign-cash advantage and a high name ID—not a local disregard for his disgrace. The baggage is real and heavy, but it doesn’t define him entirely.

That said, he’s facing a formidable opponent who will make this the most competitive South Carolina congressional election in recent memory. Colbert Busch is best known nationally for being the sister of Stephen Colbert, himself a hometown hero. Locally, Colbert Busch has earned her stripes through a career in local public service, including serving as chairwoman of the Maritime Association of the Port of Charleston, the South Carolina International Trade Conference, and the local chamber of commerce. These in-state bona fides will be helped by a national fundraising base boosted by her brother’s fame and by an expected high youth and female turnout on Election Day.  “From all accounts, she's well known, well liked, and well respected,” says South Carolina Republican strategist Hogan Gidley. “That goes a long way here in South Carolina and could trump party loyalty as a motivator.” 

But here’s the cold reality check: Democrats haven’t been able to do much better than 35 percent of the vote in recent congressional races. The rigged system of redistricting makes her already uphill climb that much steeper.

Holding his primary-night victory party at a barbecue joint called Sticky Fingers didn’t exactly help his cause to be taken seriously.

The First District’s conservatism will come up against Sanford’s presumed problem with the women’s vote, compounded by the obvious point that he is running against a woman and that any negative attacks will backfire.

“It's going to be virtually impossible for Mark Sanford to attack Colbert Busch,” says Gidley, who worked on state legislator Larry Grooms’s competing conservative campaign in the first round of the GOP primary. “It's extremely tricky political territory for several reasons. One, Sanford can't effectively execute an apology tour and consistently be on the attack. Two, any political attack on Colbert Busch would be used against Sanford and the party as proof of a perceived ‘war on women.’ Three, we have a huge problem right now with the women vote—so any candidate perceived to be one who disregards women is going to face issues getting votes. Sanford could overcome these things ... But it will be very difficult in the current political climate.”

All this is true, but arguments that Sanford’s final-round GOP primary competitor Curtis Bostic would have been a better alternative don’t pass the smell test. A staunch social conservative, Bostic had plenty of his own baggage, including not actually living in the district and getting caught up in an alleged human-trafficking ring. Southern conservative stereotypes aside, Sanford has always presented a profile more fiscal conservative than social conservative, adopting a more inclusive live-and-let-live attitude than that of many of his contemporaries, even before his self-inflicted scandal imploded.

Colbert Busch’s chance is also improved by the unusually self-selecting nature of a special election. “Republican voters probably won't vote for Colbert Bush, but they sure might stay home,” says Gidley. “In fact, many First District Republicans are fine with a Colbert Bush victory, because they reason that in about a year, we’ll have a strong chance to take back the seat—and this time nominate a conservative who doesn't have the professional and personal baggage that Mark Sanford does.”

The good news is that the voters of South Carolina’s seaside First District, which includes my hometown of Charleston, will have a real choice and a competitive congressional election in one month’s time. Washington will be watching closely. The issues won’t just be personality, they will be matters of policy that are too easily overlooked from a national perspective. There is actually a decent chance that this race will be unusually substantive and civil—and that’s a welcome change from the kind of hyperpartisan food fights that usually subsume our elections. So put your preconceptions aside—if you like politics, the only congressional campaign currently in the country will be one to savor.