You couldn't write a better plot.
The older sister of a Comedy Central star trying to defy the odds in a conservative district against a scandal-tarred former governor in search of political redemption. That's the situation we find in South Carolina's 1st district special election where Elizabeth Colbert Busch (D) is taking on Mark Sanford (R).
The central question of the five week race: Can Colbert Busch complete the Democratic fairy tale and win? Maybe. But she needs everything to break her way between now and May 7.
“If you had a thousand dollars, you wouldn’t bet it 50-50, but she has a shot,” said former Democratic National Committee chairman Donald Fowler, a native of South Carolina. Added Republican strategist Richard Quinn: “Sanford is obviously the favorite going forward. But, yes, I think it could be close.”
Given the familiarity voters have with Sanford, the tilt of the Lowcountry district and the short window for Colbert Busch to make a splash, her margin for error is small. “Victory comes from a super organized targeted ground game focused on turning out the base vote, women and moderate voters,” said South Carolina Democratic National Committeewoman Gilda Cobb-Hunter.
Colbert Busch, the older sister of Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, has been very much flying below the radar since winning her party’s nomination two weeks ago. She’s been raising money at an impressive pace and gearing up for what promises to be a nasty five-week sprint toward the special general election. She’s running as a business-savvy moderate, who has been underscoring her experience in the shipping industry in this coastal district.
“We need a voice in Washington who stands up for South Carolina solutions – not either political party. And my business experience will get the job done,” Colbert Busch said Tuesday night.
It’s not difficult to see why Colbert Busch isn’t reminding voters at every turn that she’s a Democrat. She’s trying to win in South Carolina's 1st congressional district -- where Mitt Romney won almost six in ten votes in 2012.
But Democratic strategists believe that the strength of Colbert Busch’s candidacy combined with Sanford’s baggage has given the party its best hope in decades of capturing the seat.
“In all my years being active in the South Carolina Democratic party, I've never seen any candidate energize statewide Democrats the way Elizabeth has,” said Susan Smith, president of the South Carolina Democratic Women’s Council.
Polls show that Colbert Busch and Sanford begin the campaign on pretty even footing. But the Democrat has largely gotten a free ride from Republicans, who’ve been focused on the GOP primary campaign runoff that Sanford won on Tuesday.
“Right now, the one thing that people know about her is that she’s Stephen Colbert’s sister,” Sanford told MSNBC Wednesday morning. He added: “At the end of the day, he is not on the ticket, and we’re going to have a debate about ideas.”
Sanford, for better or for worse, is much more well-defined than Colbert Busch. He’s extremely well-known in the district he represented in the mid-1990s. And voters are familiar with his past and its biggest black mark: his 2009 disappearance from the state, which he later admitted was to visit his South American mistress, to whom he is now engaged. Sanford was also saddled with the biggest ethics fine in state history.
While the race is in many ways shaping up as a referendum on Sanford’s past, the burden will be on Colbert Busch’s campaign – both to define herself before Republicans do, and to convince on-the-fence voters to either vote against Sanford or stay home. "The whole weight of this campaign is on Colbert Busch,” said Fowler.
Republicans are expected to cast Colbert Busch as a liberal, and tie her to the national Democratic Party and the entertainment industry -- by way of her younger brother.
"I am sure Democrats from Hollywood and New York will spend a fortune to try and elect their candidate, but the 1st district in South Carolina is solid red Republican territory," said Republican strategist Luke Byars.
Sanford is also expected to have to deal with a barrage of attack ads, especially if Democratic outside groups enter the mix. Save for a debate exchange last week, his 2009 fall from grace was more subtext than central focus on the GOP primary. That will likely change in a hurry.
"This is the same Mark Sanford who, as governor, disappeared from office and used taxpayer money to visit his mistress,” wrote Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) in a fundraising e-mail to supporters Tuesday night, encouraging donations to Colbert Busch.
So far, the campaign couldn’t have unfolded more wildly if it were written in a Hollywood studio. And the next month promises to be even more intriguing than the previous one.