House Republicans had to bail on Mark Sanford. But they may get the last laugh.

April 18, 2013

House Republicans' campaign arm had to bail on Mark Sanford, but may well get the last laugh in South Carolina's 1st congressional district.


(Bruce Smith/AP)

The National Republican Congressional Committee made a necessary if uncomfortable announcement Wednesday that it would spend no money to help Sanford win a May 7 special election. Sanford still stands a decent chance of victory without the help. And if he doesn't win? Well, it's still not the end of the world for the NRCC.

Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch stands a real chance of upsetting Sanford, and her odds only look better after the last two days, when Sanford's ex-wife's legal complaint that he trespassed on her property upstaged everything else in the campaign.

If she wins, Colbert Busch would not only be punching her ticket to Congress. The Democrat would also instantly secure a place on Republicans' list of highest priority 2014 targets.

A glance at the partisan tilt of the district shows why this would be the case. We're talking about a very Republican district; a district where Mitt Romney won nearly six in 10 votes last year.

A Sanford loss would likely spell the end for his career in politics. So Republicans would get a fresh start next year against Colbert Busch with a candidate who doesn't have the baggage of a former governor who admitted to an extramarital affair in 2009 and paid a $74,000 ethics fine.

A look at recent history reveals both examples of candidates notching surprise special House election victories before fading away in the next general election, and those who followed up their upsets with repeat victories.

Republican Bob Turner, the surprise victor of the 2011 special election for Anthony Weiner's seat, isn't in Congress anymore. Neither is Democrat Kathy Hochul, who scored an upset in upstate New York that same year. Republican Charles Djou, the beneficiary of a 2010 all-party special election in which Democrats split up the vote, is nowhere to be found on Capitol Hill these days. Nor is Democrat Don Cazayoux of Louisiana.

For both Hochul and Turner, redistricting was at least a partial culprit. The process carved up Turner's district, prompting him to make a Senate bid that went nowhere. And it made Hochul's life tougher in 2012.

On the flip side, Rep. Bill Owens (D-N.Y.) managed to survive in 2010 after a surprise special election win, albeit narrowly and with a third candidate in the race that hurt the Republican nominee.

None of these cases suggest that Colbert Busch could or couldn't win reelection. As we've written, special elections are unique, and the one in South Carolina is largely a referendum on Sanford. So a Colbert Busch victory would be a rejection of the Republican more than an embrace of her. Take Sanford out of the picture, and the situation would simply look tough for Colbert Busch in 2014, even with the natural advantages of incumbency.

Of course, all of this is predicated on Sanford losing. If he wins, House Republicans are in good shape, too. They would have held a seat without spending money in a district Democrats would be hard-pressed to seriously contest in 2014.

And by refusing to spend money for Sanford, the committee doesn't have to worry about criticism that it financially backed an ethically flawed candidate or other surprise Sanford developments to which it could have to respond.

Sanford will either win on May 7 or he will not.  But either way, things won't be as bad as they seem for the NRCC.

Fixbits:

Seven proposed gun amendments failed in the Senate on Wednesday, including a bipartisan compromise to expand background checks on gun purchases. President Obama wasn't happy.

The president dined with Senate Democrats after his rough day.

Authorities arrested Paul Kevin Curtis of Corinth, Miss., as a suspect in the ricin mailings addressed to Obama and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).

Shawn Reilly, one of two men at the center of the case involving a recorded conversation in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's campaign office, visited the White House days before the group's Twitter account started attacking McConnell.

A Democratic super PAC began running an ad hitting Sanford.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) acknowledged his missteps during last week's speech at Howard University.

Nineteen percent of what the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has raised this year came from caucus dues.

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) promised not to overturn a transportation overhaul if he's elected governor of Virginia.

Must-reads: 

"Gun vote shows gulf between Washington, country" -- Dan Balz, Washington Post

"Mark Sanford’s campaign stumbles as ex-wife’s allegations lead GOP to abandon him" -- Karen Tumulty and Aaron Blake, Washington Post

"Gun control: Obama’s biggest loss" -- Glenn Thrush and Reid J. Epstein, Politico

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Sean Sullivan | April 17, 2013