Mark Sanford may have carved out a path from the Appalachian Trail to Capitol Hill.
The former governor's star has risen even further with the results of Tuesday’s Republican primary runoff in. With all precincts reporting, Sanford has crushed his opponent, former Charleston County Councilman Curtis Bostic, 57% to 43% according to the Associated Press.
As I have detailed before, Sanford's rise from the ashes is nothing short of miracle considering the travails he went through in wake of his outright disappearance and revelation of his affairs with Argentinean journalist, Maria Belen Chapur, during his governorship of South Carolina in 2009. However there is one final goal Sanford must overcome before he can recapture some of his former glory. He must beat his Democratic opponent Elizabeth Colbert Busch, and by all looks it will be hard fight.
Busch, sister of comedian Stephan Colbert, is the director of Business Development at Clemons University’s Restoration Institute. She is starting to assemble a formidable swath of allies to help her in her bid for the congressional seat. In February she received the powerful endorsement of House Minority Whip Congressman James Clyburn (D-SC). On Tuesday in a major development for Busch, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) sent out an email to her fundraising lists urging them to donate to Busch’s campaign. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has not weighed in on whether they will give funds to the race, but Busch should have little trouble fundraising due to access to high profile fundraisers such as Stephan Colbert, Clyburn, and Gillibrand.
The South Carolina First Congressional District has a Cook Partisan Voter Index of R+11 and went strongly for Romney in 2012, 58%-40%. Yet amazingly enough polling of the race shows that the race is a tossup, worrying news for Sanford and good news for Busch. Public Policy Polling had the Sanford/Busch matchup at a razor thin lead for Busch with 47%-45%. Important contributing factors include Sanford’s dreadful favorability rating, standing at 34%-58% favorable/unfavorable compared to Busch’s 45%/31%. A poll released on Monday by the Busch campaign conducted by Lake Research Partners showed Busch up 47%-44%, although internal campaign polls should always be taken with a grain of salt.
But for all of Busch’s apparent strengths and Sanford’s weaknesses it is important to keep in mind the overall nature of the district. The last time the South Carolina First sent a Democratic Congressman was in 1971 with Mendel Jackson Davis. The district has been solidly Republican since the Reagan administration. The uniqueness of this special election means that conventional political wisdom need not apply.
Special elections usually have much lower turnout then presidential or even mid-term congressional elections. The key to a Busch victory would be a solid turnout of Democratic and independent voters, who back Busch at 89% and 55% and attempting to keep Republican voters dissatisfied with Sanford, who only captures 76% of them. For Sanford his strategy is simple, rally the base and utilize the conservative nature of the district to propel him to victory.
The wildcard in the race is the treatment of Sanford’s past indiscretions. They could serve as a powerful dampener on Republican enthusiasm. During the Republican primary, Sanford’s main opponent cast himself as a traditional family values in an attempt to highlight the one key difference between him and Sanford, gaining the endorsement of Rick Santorum and James Dobson, founder of Focus on Family. He however did not directly run ads or attack Sanford during the debates on his past, only making oblique references.
The Busch campaign is unlikely to not use that bullet, whether it is directly or through outside PACs. Mark Sanford will finally be able to see how forgiving the people of South Carolina really are.