Mark Sanford is down. But he’s not out.

April 26, 2013

It's not all that much fun being Mark Sanford these days. Yet, winning isn't out of the question for him.

Such is life in South Carolina's one-of-a-kind 1st district special election. The race has gotten away from Sanford in the last two weeks. He's begun to resemble a fighter on the ropes for whom simply surviving the bout against Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch looks like a challenge.

But to count him out completely at this stage would be a mistake.


(Mic Smith/AP)

"Despite Sanford's baggage, the race was his a couple of weeks ago," said Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon. "Now it's a tossup. He could still win -- and that says more about the district than about him -- but there is a really good chance that Colbert-Busch can win."

It bears repeating: We're talking about a very Republican district where Mitt Romney won by 18 points. It's a district full of country club Republican voters who will eat up the fiscally conservative rhetoric Sanford has been dishing out and look favorably upon his record on spending.

There was a time when this was all enough to conclude that Sanford, despite carrying heavy personal baggage after falling from grace in 2009, was on a path to victory. That's no longer the case.

Sanford's been accused of trespassing on his ex-wife's property. He responded clumsily to the episode. National Republicans abandoned him.

Meanwhile, Colbert Busch has done a lot right. She's stocked her war chest full of money, tacked to the political middle, and shunned the spotlight, making it more difficult for Sanford to brand her as a rubber stamp for national Democrats.

"So many want to help in her race, we now have a supporter housing shortage all over the 1st congressional district," said Susan Smith, president of the South Carolina Democratic Women’s Council.

A survey from Democratic automated pollster Public Policy Polling showed Colbert Busch up nine points this week. But polling a special election is difficult. What's more, strategists in both parties say they see a closer race. Colbert Busch has closed a wide gap, but she has not closed the deal, the thinking goes. And the NRCC's decision to take a pass was a blow to Sanford, but it wasn't a death knell, said one Palmetto State Republican.

"The congressional committee's decision to pull out is problematic for turnout," said South Carolina Republican strategist Walter Whetsell. But, Whetsell argued, "as long as Sanford has invested his own resources in building a ground game and is focused on turnout efforts, he'll prevail."

The trouble for Sanford is that left without national allies, he's struggled to keep pace financially with Colbert Busch. She outraised him more than two-to-one between mid-March and mid-April. She's outspent him too. When you factor in the Democratic outside spending in the race, the money battle has been pretty one-sided.

Colbert Busch has done everything she's needed to do, transforming from heavy underdog to front-runner in a matter of weeks. But her success is largely due to Sanford's missteps. From day one, this race was about Sanford. That's not going to change during the final 11 days.

Sanford can still affect the final impression voters have of him just before they cast their ballots. The one and only debate is next Monday. It's an opportunity for Sanford, a veteran debater, to square of against Colbert-Busch, a political novice. That alone is enough reason not to count Sanford out just yet.

All that said, Sanford's margin for error is now down to zero. Any more surprise revelations about legal complaints or extra energy expended on drawing further scrutiny to them will likely spell defeat for Sanford. And even if he is flawless the rest of the way, he may still lose.

This race feels more like a reasonably competitive football game headed into the fourth quarter than it does a rout in which the starters have been pulled. Colbert Busch has seized the momentum and the lead, it appears, but the game is being played on Sanford's turf.

Fixbits:

George W. Bush choked up by the end of his speech at the dedication of his presidential library.

Barbara Bush does not want Jeb Bush to run for president.

Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) will not run for governor in 2014.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) is considering challenging Gov. Rick Scott (R).

Ron Paul made two endorsements in congressional races.

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough met with Senate Republican to discuss the budget.

House conservatives are pursuing their own course on immigration.

The Tea Party Caucus is back.

Sixteen donors gave $122 million to George W. Bush's foundation.

Must-reads: 

"What are the pros and cons of intervention in Syria for Obama administration?" -- Scott Wilson, Washington Post

"Bush library dedication both a look back and a prologue" -- Dan Balz, Washington Post

"GOP at Cross Purposes on 'Obamacare'" -- David Drucker, Roll Call

Updated at 11:41 a.m. 

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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