South Carolina Special Election Polls: Mark Sanford Cut Too Much Slack

South Carolinians head to the polls Tuesday in a special election that will determine who will represent the state’s first Congressional district in the House of Representatives.

The race has attracted national attention because of the unique fame of both candidates. Democratic businesswoman Elizabeth Colbert Busch is the sister of famous TV personality and comedian Stephen Colbert, and the Republican nominee is former governor Mark Sanford, whose extramarital affair with an Argentine woman (to whom he is now engaged) marred his second term amid claims of misappropriation of state travel funds.

Colbert Busch enjoyed a nine-point lead in April, but polls released this week indicate that voters are becoming more forgiving of the infamous former governor, who is now leading by a thin margin.

It is certainly surprising that S.C. voters appear to forgive Governor Sanford, particularly after previous polls indicated such hostility towards him, but the shift is more understandable within the context of the district itself. South Carolina’s first Congressional district has been a Republican stronghold for decades: the district has not elected a Democrat since the early 1980s. Although Governor Sanford’s behavior was unconscionable, his increase in the polls has some positive implications, namely that South Carolinians are voting based on political ideology rather than personal history.

The American national political climate is frequently criticized for the low-down nature of its personal attacks — candidates for political office have their entire lives investigated, scrutinized, and criticized. It may be in everyone’s best interest if voters (and, though it seems like a pipe dream, the media) could begin to focus more on political beliefs and experience than on perceived personal qualities while deciding how to vote.

Yes, voters should select the candidate whose political beliefs most closely align with their own, but parties should hold their nominees to a higher moral standard. It is the job of the voter to elect the best option of the given candidates; it is the job of the party to determine who those options will be.

What I find most disturbing about this race is that the South Carolina Republican Party failed to nominate a less despicable candidate. Of all the Republicans in the first Congressional district, surely they could have selected one with more personal integrity, particularly given the GOP’s perennial emphasis on what it calls “family values.” If they intend to be the party founded in moral, as well as political, leadership, they have to start holding their members to a higher standard.

The same, of course, can be said for the Democratic Party, whose Sanford equivalent is former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who resigned in 2008 after it was revealed that he had patronized a prostitution ring. Although Spitzer has found work elsewhere (he hosts a television show for Current TV), he was effectively disowned by the party. The GOP would be wise to learn from this example.