Seemingly against all odds, former governor Mark Sanford (R-SC) successfully re-claimed his former congressional seat with a stunning 54-45 percent victory over Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch last night in southeastern South Carolina. The race drew major national attention because of Sanford’s highly publicized extra-marital affair and alleged violation of his divorce agreement, along with the Democratic nominee’s status of being the sister of Comedy Central television personality Stephen Colbert. Colbert Busch’s inability to dodge the liberal label, however, proved to be her undoing in this conservative Charleston-anchored 1st Congressional District.
It’s rare when a nominee winning a seat that overwhelmingly favors his party is considered an upset, but that’s exactly what happened last night. Sanford, running as a Tea Party endorsed fiscal hard-liner, successfully made his budget discipline message the focal point of the campaign and not his continuing personal scandals.
The Democrats poured a steady stream of money into the race, sensing that they could steal a solidly Republican seat and use the victory as a building block to support their 2014 House majority plan. Last night’s defeat is clearly a setback for them. When the final accounting is completed, the tally will likely show that Colbert Busch and the outside organizations supporting her or opposing Sanford spent between $1.7 and $2 million. Sanford, accompanied by very little outside spending, will come closer to, but will likely fall under, $1 million in total expenditures.
Earlier we projected that the former governor and congressman needed a high turnout to win because Colbert Busch would likely benefit from a lower voter participation rate. The former occurred. The final unofficial tally shows a total of 143,774 votes cast, from which Sanford garnered 54.0 percent. The total represents 31.6 percent of the 455,702 SC-1 registered voters.
Special elections commonly record total turnout numbers in the 100-120,000 range. In the only other special election this year, 81,912 voters participated in the IL-2 general vote held April 9. In the primary election (Feb. 26), which was really the deciding vote since this particular seat is so heavily Democratic, the turnout was only 61,628. Looking at the 2006 mid-term election in SC-1, 191,589 voters participated — just over 47,000 more than voted last night. We use 2006 as a like-election because this district became so over-populated late in the decade that the corresponding turnout figures are skewed for purposes of this comparison. South Carolina gained a new congressional seat in the 2010 census-based national apportionment formula because of its robust population growth.
Several points must be reiterated to explain the result:
First, though Sanford may be personally undisciplined, he successfully held to a single-issue strategy of promoting fiscal conservatism and made that the overriding factor in the election.
Second, Colbert Busch’s less than stellar final debate performance along with Vice President Joe Biden’s recent visit to the state Democratic Party convention and his declaration that a victory in the 1st District special would be an important stepping stone for building a new House majority to re-affirm the Obama agenda were perceived negatively. Additionally, the Democratic nominee finding herself on the defensive in explaining the Obama agenda but at the same time claiming she would only vote the interests of her district did not ring consistent.
Third, many claims that this is the third- or fourth-most Republican district in the country are simply not true, thereby making the Sanford victory even more impressive. In fact, President Obama’s 2012 vote percentage was lower in 115 districts, clearly landing this seat in the top quarter of Republican districts, but far from the top 10.
The Sanford victory is yet another reminder that the American political world never ceases to amaze.