You could feel it in the air. The cautious optimism that characterized South Carolina Democrats’ anxiety over the prospect of Elizabeth Colbert Busch being elected to Congress was gone. Polling numbers be damned, it was anybody’s race going into the special election on May 7, and by the end of the day, it was still a toss-up. But as precinct reports began trickling and then flowing in at Elizabeth Colbert Busch’s victory party at the Renaissance Hotel tucked off King Street, it became clear that Mark Sanford had done it. Against all odds, and confirming all assumptions (for better or worse), South Carolina 1st District voters sent Sanford back to Congress. The hiking, penny-pinching, NSFW-emailing, late-night comic epithets (or are they punchlines?) that preceded Sanford’s name in every media report for the previous six weeks went in one ear and out the other for more than 77,000 voters who punched their ballot for the ex-governor on Tuesday. And despite the nine-point margin of victory, the result says more about the district and the times than about Mark or Elizabeth.
From the beginning, the special election was Mark Sanford’s to lose. What started as a free-for-all 16-candidate GOP primary was capped off with a closer-than-anticipated Sanford vs. The World (played by Curtis Bostic) runoff, setting him up for a cakewalk in the general election, no matter that the Democrat is a charter member of Colbert Nation, right? Sure, Colbert Busch polled ahead of Mark Sanford days before the Republican runoff, but GOPers would rally around their man once all the dust settles, right? In the end, it turned out to be a simple numbers game. Forget the polls, the debates (cardboard cutout and real-life), and the election-day anecdotes — the cards were stacked against Colbert Busch from the beginning. This was a newly redistricted SC-1, we just couldn’t tell it from last year’s Tim Scott vs. Bobbie Rose grudge match. (Who’s Bobbie Rose, you ask? Exactly.)
For starters, this is not the 1st Congressional District of 2008. Redistricting in 2010 shifted the electoral make-up of the district, which previously stretched along the coast from the North Carolina state line to Seabrook Island, to a more Lowcountry-based district including Charleston, Beaufort, and portions of Colleton, Dorchester, and Berkeley Counties. The shift from the Grand Strand to Beaufort tosses Hilton Head Island retirees and growing populations of Berkeley and Dorchester suburbanites into play, and removes heavily African-American Georgetown County between Charleston and Horry Counties. A strong showing in Charleston pushed Linda Ketner close to victory in 2008, but wasn’t enough to overcome the conservative base around Myrtle Beach, now supplanted by an even more demographically monolithic Beaufort County base. All-in-all, Beaufort, Dorchester, and Berkeley Counties are reliably red counties, and with about 267,000 combined registered SC-1 voters, easily overwhelm the solidly blue Colleton and Charleston Counties, where about 187,000 voters live in the 1st District. Orangeburg State Rep. Bakari Sellers discounted Sanford’s win on Twitter Tuesday night saying, “It’s not a political comeback, it’s political gerrymandering.”
That said, despite the predictable result of the special election (in hindsight), the campaign did provide some interesting insight into modern politics in a district transformed into a political MacGuffin overnight, with some in the media speculating that the 1st District could be key to Democrats’ chances to expand their reach in next year’s midterm elections. A win would be a “shot in the arm,” as one Charleston consultant told The State, but since 2003, more than three-quarters of special elections to Congress have resulted in victory for the party of the seat’s former occupant, according to analysis by the UVA Center for Politics. So, it was a long shot for Colbert Busch to be expected to make a good showing in a district that went for Romney by 18 percentage points in 2012. But Mark Sanford wasn’t on the ballot in 100 percent of those other special elections, seemingly making the SC 1st ripe for the taking. Washington-based groups certainly thought so, pumping more than a million dollars into the month-long general election campaign, almost all for Colbert Busch and almost all from out-of-state. Only one out of the 10 PACs, super PACs, and non-profit or party committees who spent money in the special election was based in South Carolina, with the rest hailing from D.C., according to the Center for Public Integrity. Even though the majority of the ads produced by groups on both sides were negative, critiques of the former governor’s well-documented personal struggles didn’t pay off for Colbert Busch, who was fighting Sanford’s intensely political attacks over labor unions and political allegiance with a positive personal story of her own, but with a policy platform that seemed equal parts pander and party.
By most accounts, Mark Sanford’s long-term prospects in the 1st District are strong. Despite being bolstered during the campaign for his former seat in Congress by the same folks in the Statehouse who voted in 2009 to censure him, Jim DeMint reacted positively to Sanford’s revival, conceding that “He’ll vote right.” That’s what it really comes down to after all. As Paul Krugman said last week, in today’s hyper-polarized political world, South Carolina voters in the heavily Republican 1st District “got it right” in choosing Sanford, if only for the R beside his name. Whether Mark Sanford’s long-term legacy highlights “ideology over decency,” as Will Moredock wrote this week, judgment at the ballot box may continue to depend only on the former.
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