Sanford, Colbert Busch race to the finish line in South Carolina

In a heavily conservative district, Mark Sanford and Elizabeth Colbert Busch are on South Carolina ballots for Tuesday’s special election. The Fix’s Aaron Blake says the race is more of a referendum on Sanford than it is a fight between equals. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

— It’s become almost impossible to keep up with all the strange twists and turns in former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford’s bid for political redemption. The saga will finally reach its denouement Tuesday, when voters of the 1st Congressional District will decide whether to return him to the House seat where he launched his political career almost two decades ago.

The Republican will face Democratic political newcomer Elizabeth Colbert Busch in a special election to fill the seat that was vacated in December, when then-Rep. Tim Scott (R) was appointed to an open spot in the Senate. Colbert Busch is a businesswoman, better known for being the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert.

The politics of this conservative district, where nearly 60 percent voted for GOP nominee Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential contest, would normally favor any Republican.

But Sanford is not just any Republican.

Few expected to see him re-enter political life after the mess he created in June 2009, when, as governor, he disappeared for five days. He claimed to be hiking the Appalachian Trail, but it turned out he had been seeing his Argentinian mistress. His marriage exploded, and he was almost kicked out of office. He ended up paying the largest ethics fine in South Carolina history.

Less than four years later, Sanford bested 15 other Republicans to win the nomination for the House seat, only to set off another tempest when it was revealed that his former wife was taking him to court for trespassing. That prompted the National Republican Campaign Committee to take the unusual step of withdrawing its support from Sanford’s candidacy.

Busch, meanwhile, is offering South Carolinians a chance to turn the page. Sanford has taken every opportunity he could to tie her to labor unions, the national Democratic party and, particularly, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — going so far as to cart around and “debate” a life-size poster of the California Democrat.

Special elections, which generally draw low turnout, are notoriously hard to predict. And this one has taken so many wild bounces that it is harder to read than most.

“I feel really, really good,” Colbert Busch said at a stop on Tuesday. “I’m really very positive. We’re seeing a lot of people wanting to come to the middle.”

She said she was gratified to get the endorsement of the Charleston Post and Courier (she is the first Democrat the newspaper has supported for a House seat in decades).

Sanford also expressed optimism. Asked what he will be watching most closely on Tuesday, however, he demurred: “I’m not a practitioner or a scientist on that front.”

Strategists and at least one poll shows Sanford has picked up some momentum in the closing days of the campaign.

Both candidates are sprinting toward the finish line, making multiple campaign stops at barber shops, ice cream stands and anywhere else potential voters might be found across the district.

The roadsides of what is known as the Lowcountry are lined by their campaign signs. Many of Sanford’s are handmade, with spray paint on plywood, as a none-too-subtle reminder of his frugality.

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Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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