Why Sanford vs. Colbert Busch tells us nothing

April 3, 2013

Mark Sanford and Elizabeth Colbert Busch will spend the next five weeks fighting tooth and nail for the right to represent South Carolina's 1st District in Congress. But, while the campaign promises to be memorable, searching for national significance would be a fool’s errand.

Former governor Mark Sanford (Bruce Smith/AP)
Former governor Mark Sanford (Bruce Smith/AP)

Here’s why.

The celebrity factor: This is not your standard R versus D race. It’s a contest between a Republican with personal baggage and a nationally known scandal and a Democrat with a famous last name. The campaign will be very much about Sanford and his past. It will boil down to a question of whether voters in a Republican district (more on that in a moment) have forgiven him for bolting from the state in 2009 to meet the woman with whom he has having an affair. (She is now his fiancee.) The contest will also be impacted by what people think of Colbert Busch, and what her famous brother means to them. Like Colbert, and you’d be more likely to vote for his sister. Hate him, and you’d be less likely to support her.

It’s not a swing district: Not even close. Mitt Romney carried 58 percent of the vote there. A recent poll from Democratic automated pollster PPP showed President Obama’s approval rating stood at 41 percent. If you’re looking for a bellwether area to take the early temperature of Obama’s second-term policies, this isn’t it. A generic Republican is going to be more popular than a generic Democrat there under any circumstances short of a massive national Democratic wave. And even that might not be enough to shift the momentum.

What a Sanford win would mean: If Sanford wins, it would mean that enough voters in a fiscally conservative area were able to get beyond his troubled past to send a fiscally conservative Republican back to Congress. In short, when you have a nominee as well-known as Sanford it’s hard to argue against the proposition that the campaign is anything more than a referendum on him.

What a Colbert Busch win would mean: It would mean the opposite of a Sanford win. That is, that voters were not able to accept the baggage that Sanford’s bid for a second political life brought with it. It wouldn’t signal that national Democrats’ message is suddenly starting to break through in very hostile political territory. Remember, Colbert Busch has put herself in strong position to compete here by virtue of her last name and ability to raise money (which also is partly due to her last name). Substitute a lesser-known Democrat who takes all of the same positions Colbert Busch has adopted, and they wouldn’t have the same prime opportunity she has now.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Juliet Eilperin · April 3, 2013