Two weeks before the 1st District special election, it looked like Mark Sanford was a goner. The allegations that the former South Carolina governor had trespassed on his ex-wife’s property had just surfaced, and the fallout was immediately devastating. Polling by a liberal group, Public Policy Polling, showed him down nine points, while internal polling by the national group Independent Women’s Voices, which is run by conservative activists, was just as bad.
The word on political jump street was that Sanford was finished. The National Republican Congressional Committee had drop-kicked him, publicly pulling their endorsement and financial support because they could see no logical route to victory. Donor wallets snapped shut. And none of the state’s other Republican congressmen would endorse him, much less be seen with him. Even Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is the godfather of one of Sanford’s sons, was nowhere to be found. Things were so desperate that Sanford’s Republican primary opponents began to float themselves as write-in alternatives. Then Sanford got incredibly lucky.
Enter Heather Higgins, a New York businesswoman, philanthropist, and the conservative activist behind the group Independent Women’s Voices. She’d been trying to convince the national Republican Party to abandon their Romney-esque, Mr. Nice Guy strategy of running as the “I’m not the Democrat” candidate. Instead, she wanted them to go for the jugular on issues like Obamacare. But no one was listening to her. Higgins had tried this strategy once before, using the Democrats’ healthcare votes to help get Sen. Scott Brown elected in Massachusetts in 2010.
With just weeks to go in the congressional race, the Charleston City Paper column I wrote about Elizabeth Colbert Busch’s little-known record of enthusiasm for unions and socialized medicine had apparently begun to make the rounds in New York political circles. Higgins, who I did not know at the time, later told me she read it and wondered what would happen if voters in South Carolina knew the whole story about Colbert Busch. And what would happen if Obamacare were used against her? If Higgins could help raise Sanford from the dead in the District 1 race by hitting Colbert Busch hard on Obamacare, her involvement with unions, and a few other issues, she could prove her point to the national Republican Party — that an aggressive strategy on the issues could work nationally. It would also help position her group as a national power player.
So Independent Women’s Voices spent four days testing out their theory in the Charleston area, contacting 10,000 likely voters. When a test group of independent and Republican voters were told that Sanford had signed an Obamacare repeal pledge while Colbert Busch had refused to, the results were truly remarkable. Those polled preferred Sanford 63 percent to 30 percent on that issue, and many of these people didn’t necessarily like the former Republican governor. They were able to improve Sanford’s standing with the test group by six points.
With that data in hand, Higgins’ group then went all in, spending $250,000 to spread their message. That’s a lot of money, but far less than the amount Colbert Busch and the Democrats spent. Jittery Republicans here needed someone to go first, to step up, to shake off the trespassing debacle and show voters that someone believed Sanford could still win.
As Sanford’s numbers began to improve with Republicans and independents, Sen. Rand Paul stepped out and publicly endorsed him, a turning point for the campaign. With just a week to go, U.S. senators Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham joined Paul in endorsing Sanford. As they came on board, so did the volunteers.
Sanford helped too, moving from a soft message of touting his own record and pointing out that Colbert Busch had taken union money — a strategy that wasn’t working — to campaigning with a Nancy Pelosi cutout and running an ad featuring a video of Colbert Busch promising to fight for unions in Washington. Had the election been held just two weeks earlier, the Democratic candidate would be picking out the drapes for her Congressional office right now. Instead, more than three quarters of undecided voters broke for Sanford.
Higgins tells me that given Boeing’s importance to the district, Colbert Busch’s association with unions deeply wounded her campaign, but the single most important factor with voters was her refusal to sign the Obamacare repeal pledge.”I think the implications are huge nationally,” Higgins says.
Whether Republicans test that theory in 2014 remains to be seen. Whatever the case may be, Republicans on the campaign trail took to calling Sanford “Lazarus” toward the end of the race. It really was like watching a man rise from the dead.