Mark Sanford might actually win South Carolina seat

Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said that Mark Sanford served in the House from 1996 to 2002. He served from 1994 to 2000. This version has been corrected.

Chris Cillizza
Reporter May 5, 2013

Mark Sanford just might win.

In conversations with Democratic and Republican strategists closely following the special election set for Tuesday in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, the consensus is that the former governor, not businesswoman (and sister of Stephen Colbert) Elizabeth Colbert Busch, is the candidate gaining momentum in the race’s final 48 hours.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House. View Archive

Yes, this is the same Sanford who disappeared from the state for five days in 2009, eventually admitting that he had traveled to Argentina to visit a woman who wasn’t his wife. (The woman in question — Maria Belen Chapur — is now Sanford’s fiancee.) And, yes, this is the same Sanford who admitted to trespassing at his ex-wife’s beach house to watch the Super Bowl with one of his sons — a revelation that led the National Republican Congressional Committee to announce publicly that it would not be spending any money on the contest.

Given all of that, how the heck is Sanford in a jump-ball race to reclaim his old coastal Carolina seat on Tuesday? It’s a confluence of partisanship, candidate skills and, well, more partisanship. Following are some of the major reasons that Sanford could win.

1. This is a Republican district. While less of a social-conservative bastion than places like the 3rd and 4th congressional districts in the Upstate, the 1st, which includes the city of Charleston as well as tony vacation spots such as Hilton Head Island, is still quite Republican.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney carried the 1st by 18 points in November. (By way of comparison, Romney won in the 4th by 26 points.) Sanford took more than 60 percent of the vote in the district in his 2002 and 2006 gubernatorial victories and held the House seat easily for three terms from 1994 to 2000.

“If Sanford were to pull it out, it would speak more to the heavy partisan undertow of the district than to any larger philosophical question about comebacks,” said Jim Hodges, the Democratic governor who Sanford upended in 2002.

2. Sanford is still a Republican. Sanford’s actions in his personal life are a major turnoff for many GOP voters in the district, but he remains far closer to their views when it comes to economic matters — the overriding issue in this and every district at the moment — than does Colbert Busch.

And Sanford is doing everything he can to play up that fact in his ads in the race. “This contest is bigger than them or me; it’s about two different visions of how we restore America and rein in Washington spending,” he says in the latest commercial, which features him speaking directly to the camera. “We have to get this right.”

The key question for Sanford is whether being right — in the eyes of the district — when it comes to fiscal issues will be enough to trump their concerns about his personal conduct. And, do doubts about Sanford’s personal life dampen the GOP base’s enthusiasm just enough to hand a win to Colbert Busch?

3. Sanford is a gifted candidate. Ever since he first ran for Congress way back in 1996, it’s been very clear to anyone who pays close attention to politics that Sanford is a naturally gifted politician. He’s a terrific communicator on television — it’s why his campaign team has had him speaking directly to the camera so much during the contest — and has a sort of folksy appeal that plays well in the district.

That personal charm has taken a major hit over the past four years as Sanford’s private life has tarnished the image he sought to portray during his rapid rise in state and national politics. Still, the better candidate usually wins races. And Sanford is clearly the better candidate in this race.

4. Charleston. The biggest of the five counties in the district also happens to be a place where Sanford has always had a very strong political base. In his GOP runoff victory last month, Charleston County provided 44 percent of all the votes Sanford received. When Hodges beat then-Gov. David Beasley (R) in 1998, the Democrat took 60 percent in Charleston County. Four years later, Hodges won just 44 percent in Charleston County, a critical element in his loss to Sanford.

5. Colbert Busch’s campaign has been only okay. The key to winning such a Republican district as a Democrat (even with a GOP candidate as badly flawed as Sanford) is to distance yourself from the national party, which is not well liked in places like the 1st. Democrats, privately, grouse that Colbert Busch has done next to nothing to make clear that she won’t be a lock-step vote for the national Democratic Party if she is elected.

Sanford, to his credit, has seized on Colbert Busch’s inability — or unwillingness — to differentiate herself from national Democrats. He has appeared alongside a cardboard cutout of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on the stump and in his closing ad says that “Nancy Pelosi and allies have spent more than a million dollars to defeat me.”

To be clear, no one is confidently predicting a Sanford victory. But the very fact that he is in the mix with less than two days left before the special election is amazing — and a testament to the fact that partisanship matters. A lot.

“A Sanford victory will speak loudly about the strong GOP leanings of the district and reflect the reality that, for voters, political philosophy is more important than issues of perceived personal peccadilloes,” said Walter Whetsell, a GOP consultant in the state.

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