South Carolina 1: Special Situation Requires Two Ratings

Nathan L. Gonzales April 17, 2013 · 4:22 PM EDT

We’ve said it many times before, special elections are just that, special, but former Gov. Mark Sanford (R) is apparently working overtime to ensure the race in South Carolina’s 1st District is one for the ages.

In spite of his past failings, Sanford successfully navigated the Republican primary. But even though he is running in a very Republican district, the former congressman still needed to avoid serious missteps in the general election against Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch. He failed to do that when it was revealed on Wednesday that he trespassed at his ex-wife’s house to watch the Super Bowl with his son.

No matter how Sanford wants to explain away the February incident, the political reality is that momentum might be the most prized commodity in a special election, and with less than three weeks before the May 7 election, Republicans have none. They are at serious risk of letting now-Sen. Tim Scott’s (R) former seat fall into Democratic hands.

Busch emerged from the Democratic primary largely unscathed and with positive name identification, while Sanford endured attacks from multiple Republican opponents. Fast forward to the general election and Sanford just went on television going after the Democrat for her ties to labor unions to try and bring down her numbers since Busch has been on the air alone boosting her business credentials.

The Democratic House Majority PAC just went on television attacking Sanford for improper use of a taxpayer-funded plane when he was governor while Republican groups are staying on the sidelines.

Sources at the National Republican Congressional Committee revealed on Wednesday that after the trespassing incident became public, they have no plans to support Sanford in the special election. After numerous high-profile special election losses in recent years, the NRCC doesn’t look anxious to add another one.

And the NRCC could be just the beginning of Republicans distancing themselves from Sanford. When asked if he still supported Sanford, Sen. Scott told Politico, “No comment.”

Other outside GOP groups could get involved, but their arrival doesn’t look imminent. “We have not been involved in the race in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, in the primary, in the runoff, or in the general. We don’t expect that to change,” according to Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller.

“It’s so Republican he could win, he’s so polarizing he could lose by a lot,” according to one GOP strategist.

When a special election becomes a referendum on a flawed candidate, Republicans lose. So even though the district’s partisanship is very Republican, Sanford can’t stay out of the headlines and we are moving the race from Lean Republican to Toss-Up/Tilt Democratic.

Sanford’s path depends on his ability to bring down Busch’s image. But it looks like he will have to do that alone and defend himself at the same time. If polling reflects he is successfully redefining her, then our rating would adjust accordingly. 

But when, or if, Busch wins the special election, she will instantly become of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents in the country and we will likely start her 2014 bid as Toss-Up/Tilt Republican.

South Carolina’s 1st District will be one of eight seats represented by Democrats that the last three GOP presidential nominees have won including Mitt Romney (58 percent), John McCain (56 percent) and George W. Bush (62 percent). That means she will represent a similar district to Democratic Reps. Mike McIntyre (N.C.) and Jim Matheson (Utah) but without the longevity that those congressman have used to entrench themselves. Of course, that rating assumes that Sanford is not the nominee again in 2014.