South Carolina 1: GOP Throwing Another Race Away, Mark Sanford Style

Stuart Rothenberg April 26, 2013 · 9:31 AM EDT

Republicans are on quite a streak when it comes to throwing away elections.

In 2010, it was Christine O’Donnell of Delaware, Ken Buck of Colorado and Sharron Angle of Nevada. Then, in 2012, it was Todd Akin of Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana.

And now? And now it might be Mark Sanford of South Carolina.

Apparently uncomfortable that they might win an election, GOP voters in South Carolina’s 1st District decided to nominate the disgraced former governor in the special election to fill the seat of Republican Tim Scott, who was appointed to the Senate earlier this year.

But Sanford’s ability to win the special didn’t seem all that much at risk until his ex-wife complained that the former governor trespassed at her home, after which Sanford issued an un-persuasive statement explaining his behavior.

Sanford has somehow made this special election a referendum about him, his behavior and his character when Republicans have wanted to make it about Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch accepting contributions from labor unions that opposed allowing Boeing to build a plant in South Carolina, her celebrity backers and her support for President Barack Obama.

The district’s strong Republican bent — Obama won only 40 percent of the vote in the 1st District last year — means that, all things being equal, the GOP has a considerable advantage in any election there.

But Sanford’s candidacy, combined with the trespassing charge, keeps the focus on the GOP nominee, not on Colbert Busch or Obama. That’s exactly what Colbert Busch wants and what Republican strategists had hoped to avoid.

The Democratic nominee continues to talk about jobs, making sure that she is seen by Republican voters as an acceptable alternative. And that’s all she will need to be if Sanford is radioactive.

National Republicans have, by and large, washed their hands of this special election. Democratic groups are running ads to support Colbert Busch — mostly by mocking Sanford and reminding voters of his ethical lapses — a sure sign of a dynamic that does not help Sanford’s chances.

The Republican nature of the district presumably gives Sanford a chance to win the May 7 special election, but all of the body language of the race — and the momentum — is bad for the former governor. And that’s why this tossup contest tilts toward the Democrat. [Note: RPR moved the race last week, April 17]

If Colbert Busch wins the seat next month, it won’t be because most voters wanted her to represent them in Congress. It will be because many voters — Republican voters — concluded that Sanford was unacceptable.