South Carolina 1 Special: Referendum on Sanford or Colbert Busch?

Jessica Taylor April 2, 2013 · 9:39 PM EDT

Mark Sanford cleared another hurdle Tuesday on his way to political redemption, winning the GOP runoff against former Charleston City councilor Curtis Bostic.

However, the disgraced former South Carolina governor’s greatest test is yet to come against Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch on May 7. While the general election contest contest has all the hallmarks of an upset in the making, Sanford still retains a slight advantage -- for now -- to hold the state’s 1st District seat.

To be sure, this seat is a lot more in play than it should be in a district that gave GOP nominee Mitt Romney over 58 percent just last November. Sanford’s liabilities are well documented -- four years ago, the rising GOP star became a national punchline after he disappeared from the job, supposedly “hiking the Appalachian Trail,” and in a tearful press conference admitted he was seeing his mistress in Argentina. Now, he is divorced and engaged to Maria Belen Chapur.

Early Democratic polling has shown Colbert Busch with an early lead -- but as Stu wrote earlier Tuesday, take that with a grain of salt. An internal poll from the Democrat’s campaign showed her with a narrow edge over Sanford, 47 percent to 44 percent, and a Public Policy Polling (D) automated survey from last week showed her up by a similar margin. In that poll, Colbert Bush has a 45 percent favorable rating, though a quarter of respondents still didn’t know enough about her. But Sanford’s image was upside down, with 58 percent having an unfavorable view of the former governor.

Colbert Busch hasn’t been battered at all yet, and she’s become a mini-star in her own regard thanks to her brother, comedian Stephen Colbert, who’s slated to do more fundraisers to boost her coffers. Without serious primary opposition, she ended February with just over $200,000 in the bank.

Some Democrats privately haven’t been that impressed with Colbert Busch’s campaign yet, either. While she has a compelling story and profile, she hasn’t positioned herself in the centrist image they might have hoped, and has staked out more liberal positions on social issues.

While the Lowcountry isn’t as socially conservative as the more evangelical Upstate -- another reason why Bostic’s challenge, backed by many Christian activists, was an uphill climb -- Colbert Busch must prove her fiscally conservative bona fides. Expect Republicans to hit her over her endorsements from union groups that opposed new Boeing plants in the Lowcountry.

Palmetto State Republican operatives are cautiously optimistic about Sanford’s chances, and note he ran a smart, disciplined campaign, even against some lackluster candidates. But the former governor had a team of seasoned, former advisers behind him who intimately know this district, which Sanford represented from 1995 to 2001.

“The general election will be close,” predicted longtime South Carolina GOP strategist Richard Quinn. “[Colbert Busch] is a tabula rasa. But her biggest asset is also her biggest problem.”

In the Republican primary, Sanford positioned his story as one of redemption and grace, admitting he made mistakes in office but making impassioned pleas to voters to give him a second chance. As one unaligned GOP operative put it, Sanford “turned it into a referendum on forgiveness” -- and his opponents never came up with an effective counter.

While most of his GOP opponents held their fire and Bostic never took on Sanford’s failings in paid media, Democrats won’t be as kind. Still, all of Sanford’s dirty laundry has been well aired. Sanford and any GOP groups that jump in will need to go after Colbert Busch and paint her as a vote for Nancy Pelosi in lock step with national Democrats.

Democrats wouldn’t mind at all if they end up forcing national GOP groups, including the National Republican Congressional Committee, to go to on the attack, and it seems likely national Republicans will have to spend here. But it’s unclear what the party will have to spend in what should be a safe seat. But do Democrats have enough faith too in the potential upset and their nominee to make their own investment?

Palmetto State politics are always unpredictable, and a special election with two high profile candidates will attract a saturation of national media attention and dominate the political conversation for the next month.

But special elections get a lot more attention and parties try to make them a referendum on an issue or the national mood -- when they’re often quirks of nature. Upsets aren’t unusual, as now former representatives Travis Childers (D-Miss.), Charles Djou (R-Hawaii), Kathy Hochul (D-N.Y.) and Bob Turner (R-N.Y.) can attest.

This race is far from the Republican slam dunk it should be, and given the unpredictable nature of special elections and Sanford’s weaknesses, we are moving this race to Lean Republican.