Mark Sanford’s Formidable Opponent: Stephen Colbert’s Sister

With his campaign in turmoil, the former governor might be itching to hit the Appalachian Trail again. Jack Bass on his formidable congressional opponent: Stephen Colbert's sister.

04.29.13 8:45 AM ET

On Monday night Republican nominee and former Gov. Mark Sanford no longer will have to debate with a cardboard cutout of Nancy Pelosi.

With the election to fill South Carolina’s First Congressional District barely a week away, he and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Colbert Busch will meet Monday night in a 400-seat conference center at the Citadel in their only campaign debate. It won’t be televised, but will be streamed live by several outlets. The next night they will appear jointly—but will not debate—at an NAACP-organized venue.

The question in Charleston these days is a simple one. In the first two weeks of April it was, can Stephen Colbert’s sister defeat Jenny Sanford’s former husband in a May 7 special election for South Carolina’s First Congressional District? It quickly changed to, how badly will former two-term governor Mark Sanford lose? The campaign exploded in mid-April in a series of events that sent “Sanford reeling,” as a front-page banner headline blared in the Charleston Post and Courier, the district’s dominant newspaper.

The tailspin began with an April 16 Associated Press report revealing that Jenny had filed a complaint in family court charging Mark with violating a legal agreement not to enter her post-divorce home on Sullivan’s Island without permission. The clerk of court ruled the agreement was a public document. The court will hear the case on May 9, two days after the election between him and Elizabeth Colbert Busch.

Colbert Busch already leads in fundraising and polling, and that’s before her brother Stephen Colbert returns to Charleston later in the week to host another six-figure fundraiser. Meanwhile, a group of disgruntled Republicans have organized a last-minute write-in campaign urging Republicans to write in the name of GOP state Sen. Larry Grooms, who has disavowed their effort. He finished third among 16 candidates in the first primary.

The day after the story broke, the National Republican Congressional Committee announced it was withdrawing financial support for Sanford, whose resources were already strained by both a 16-person primary race and a runoff. Only one of his primary opponents has endorsed him for the general election.

Two days after that, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee launched a $200,000 TV ad buy attacking Sanford’s spending taxpayer money for those visits to Argentina and his $68,000 ethics fine. (In a subsequent newspaper ad, Sanford said he “just paid the fine” to avoid spending his last 18 months as governor “litigating these things.”)

The press coverage evoked memories of the inglorious end to Sanford's two terms as an obstructionist governor. An Ayn Rand devotee, he exited the governor’s mansion in disgrace a year and a half after his “hiking the Appalachian Trail” story fell apart. After it was revealed he was actually engaged in an extramarital affair with María Belén Chapur in Argentina, he survived an impeachment attempt. But Jenny packed up her things at the governor’s mansion, moved back to Sullivan’s Island with their children, and divorced him.

Chapur, a tall, slender, tan brunette (and now Sanford’s fiancée), showed up—“by surprise,” according to candidate Sanford—at his Republican primary runoff victory party.  She and two of Sanford's sons appeared with him on the stage. One of the sons had not previously met her, and Jenny subsequently revealed they were both quite upset afterwards.

In his continuing John Galt, rules-don't-apply-to-him fashion, in February Sanford drove himself and his 14-year-old son home after both had been at a Super Bowl party at the home of one of Mark’s friends and found it too noisy. After what he said was a failed attempt to call Jenny, who was flying home, Mark joined his son inside her house despite the legal agreement not to enter. He had violated that rule at least once before, with her filing a complaint about it to the Sullivan’s Island police.

As she was walking up the stairs after arriving home, he was standing on her porch with a cellphone flashlight and greeted her. She expressed her feelings by filing a formal complaint in family court for trespassing.


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Elizabeth Colbert (she pronounces it with a hard “r”) Busch knows loss well. A year after her father, a top administrator at the Medical University of South Carolina, and two of her brothers were killed in a plane crash, she interned the following summer for Sen. Fritz Hollings in his Washington office.

She fondly remembers that distant world. “What you see today was not what it was like back then, not at all,” she recently told an interviewer. “People talked to each other. They actually discussed things. They came to agreements. We’ve got to go back to those days.”

Later divorced after six years and with three children from her first husband (he appeared on an America’s Most Wanted list in a case about securities fraud) she is on a leave of absence as director of business development at Clemson University’s federally funded, $95 million Wind Turbine Drive Testing Facility in North Charleston and is running as a moderate Democrat with a background in management. Her brother Stephen has been nothing but helpful in the campaign, appearing at at least four fundraisers in Charleston, New York, and Washington, each of which have brought in big bucks. An April 19–21 poll by Public Policy Polling, based in Raleigh, North Carolina, showed Colbert Busch with a 50-41 lead, with 5 percent undecided and 3 percent for a Green Party candidate.

Much has been made of Mitt Romney winning 58 percent of the First District’s 2012 presidential vote, 4 percentage points higher than his statewide average. It’s also the only district in which Romney defeated Newt Gingrich in South Carolina’s Republican presidential primary.

Essentially the South Carolina First is a moderate Republican-majority district, with strong concentrations of northern migrants, many of them well-to-do retirees in both the Charleston area and farther south to Hilton Head and its environs in Beaufort County near Savannah, Georgia. Total voter registration is 20 percent African-American, a solid Democratic bloc. Also, the total registration is 55 percent female, a big plus for Colbert Busch, whose personal story is one that appeals and who has made equal pay for women a central point in her campaign.

A male acquaintance with strong Republican credentials confided to me after the first primary (Colbert Busch received 96 percent of the vote against a perennial opposing candidate in the Democratic primary) that he had voted for Sanford, but his wife voted for Colbert Busch. Even before all the campaign turmoil, a Public Policy Polling survey showed Busch 2 points ahead of Sanford, but within the margin of error.

South Carolina’s solid-red national image is somewhat misleading. A majority in Charleston County (not all of which is in the First District) voted for President Obama both in 2008 and 2012. He received 45 percent of the two-party statewide vote in 2012 without stepping foot, or his campaign spending a dime, in the state. In 2008 an openly lesbian Democratic candidate received 48 percent of the First District vote. Her low-profile campaign manager, Bill Romjue, has returned to the state to run Colbert Busch’s race this year.

Further evidence that the state is more purple than red is Gov. Nikki Haley’s 2010 election win with 51 percent of the vote, and a current poll showing her approval rating slightly improving, but still below 50 percent. The new president of the state Senate, John Courson, a longtime Republican incumbent, is a moderate conservative. He got elected to the leadership post with overwhelming support from the Democratic minority and a small group of Republican moderates. He also expressed pride last year when Governor Haley announced report cards for all legislators and gave him a zero.

Although the First District leans moderate Republican, Sanford doesn’t. In a post-runoff Charleston County Republican Convention, he led off his speech by citing Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential candidate, as his model for “advancing limited government ideals.” He may have been unaware that as a senator from Arizona, Goldwater voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Act's Title Nine opened the door to full participation in college sports, outlawed discrimination against women in employment, and greatly expanded rights for African-Americans. The bigger point is that Sanford’s invoking the Goldwater campaign of a half century ago as a focal point suggests he may be a bit out of touch with today’s voters.

The House seat became open after Haley in December named First District Congressman Tim Scott to the Senate vacancy created by Sen. Jim DeMint’s resignation to become president, with a million-dollar annual salary, of the Heritage Foundation. Sen. Scott now serves as the Senate’s only African-American Republican member.

Sanford held the First District seat for six years as a 34-year-old, professed three-term-limit candidate first elected in 1994, with Jenny as his campaign manager. She continued that role in his two elections as governor of South Carolina. He had the chutzpah to ask her again this year.  She said no.

On Sunday, April 21, a full-page ad in The Post and Courier ran under the headline, “A Personal Message from Mark Sanford.” He concluded with “one last thought,” noting that “in March of 1863, there was similarly little time as South Carolina native William Travis led American fighters in the battle of the Alamo.” That battle, of course, ended in March 1836, not during the middle of the Civil War. The transposed numbers in the date suggest that without Jenny running the show, Mark just can’t get it right.