SUMMERVILLE, S.C. – South Carolina’s First Congressional District is known for the churning Port of Charleston, growing suburbs to the north, and stately homes with wrap-around porches from Beaufort to Mount Pleasant. The white, well-heeled voters who dominate the district favored Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney by 18 percentage points.
This coastal strip is also home to a more blue-collar, solidly Democratic population; about one out of five of the district’s residents are African-American. Their turnout in the May 7 special congressional election is key to an upset by the Democratic nominee, Elizabeth Colbert Busch.
Inside her campaign office here, having come straight from church in their Sunday best, Dot Brown and Ethel Campbell are planning an afternoon of phone banking and door knocking. Local television stations aren’t carrying the only debate pitting Colbert Busch against Sanford on Monday night.
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“Most people we come across tend not to understand the importance of a special election, so you have got to get out and let them know,” said Brown, 67 years old, dressed in a marigold suit and bright pink scarf.
Campbell, 62, who immediately kicked off her pumps once she sat down, said she tries to explain to voters that electing another Democrat to Congress will help President Obama. “I say, ‘You had his back in 2012. Do you have his back in 2013?’ "
But Colbert Busch has flaunted her independence from a president unpopular in most of the district, assailing his budget plan for raising taxes, not cutting enough spending and meddling with Social Security. “Not only does President Obama’s plan fail to put our finances back in order, it would cut benefits for our seniors, which is wrong,” she said in a statement. Colbert Busch also declined to say whether she would have supported Obama's economic stimulus plan in his first term. “She’s trying to be all things to all people,’’ said Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer.
Interviews with black voters on Sunday found few knew much about the businesswoman and political novice -- beyond the fact that she’s the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert. If they vote, disgust with her Republican opponent, former Gov. Mark Sanford, is more likely to be the driving force. The governor left office in 2011, over a year after admitting he disappeared from public view for several days to visit his girlfriend in Argentina.
“We don’t need people like him who set a bad example,” said 78-year-old Virginia Rosemond, her wide-brimmed, red hat shielding her from a drizzly rain as left the Baum Temple AME Zion Church. Will she vote for Colbert Busch? “If I get a ride,” she responded.
Fellow churchgoer Charles Logan, 67, said he “might” vote for Colbert Busch. “I’m not messing with him,” he said of Sanford. “He left his wife. He left his office. What makes you think he won’t go to Washington and do the same thing?”
Colbert Busch’s campaign did not respond to e-mails and phone calls about its outreach to African-American voters. Appealing to moderate Republicans and independents is also crucial to her success, so there is a political risk in appearing eager to court black Democrats. When she campaigned at historically black Burke High School in Charleston last week, the event was billed as a rally for women voters.
But the campaign’s radio ad linking Sanford to allegations of voter suppression makes her intentions clear. With Isaac Hayes’ soundtrack from the 1971 movie about a black private detective as backdrop, the ad assails a new South Carolina law that requires voters to show photo identification. A federal court blocked the law from going into effect until after the 2012 election. “Somebody doesn’t want African Americans to vote, and it doesn’t take Shaft to figure out who,” a narrator says in the radio spot. “Tuesday May 7th is your chance to show them they can’t get away with it.”
The spot doesn’t mention that the ID law was signed after Sanford left office by Gov. Nikki Haley. A spokesman for the Sanford campaign, Joel Sawyer, released a written statement when the ad first aired earlier this month that called it a “negative radio ad with some very unfortunate overtones.”
Jaime Harrison, vice chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, defended the spot.
“Voter ID has been a very hot button issue in the African-American community,” said Harrison, who if elected chairman next month would be the first black to lead the party in South Carolina. “Many folks who grew up in the civil rights movement have called it modern-day Jim Crow. The ad will help to pique the awareness of African-Americans in that district.”
Sanford is not opposed to the law, Sawyer said, but he did not recall the ex-governor ever speaking publicly about it. Sawyer also noted that Sanford appointed a record number of African-Americans to his Cabinet and joined the state Supreme Court’s chief justice in 2006 in calling for more diverse appointments to the bench. In 2003, Sanford offered an official apology for the “Orangeburg Massacre,” the 1968 shootings by South Carolina highway patrol officers that killed three black students protesting a segregated bowling alley.
The uncertainty of black turnout in the May 7 special election comes on the heels of an Associated Press analysis that found blacks voted at a higher rate than other minority groups in 2012 and largely surpassed white turnout for the first time. If black turnout had matched 2004, Romney would have won in 2012.
In one of Colbert Busch’s only campaign events aimed at African-Americans, she spoke at a black history celebration in February at Summerville High school. “I give her credit for that,” said Ava Graham, a 44-year-old child care worker whose daughter sang with her church choir at the event. Colbert Bush spoke about the impact of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy on her life. “I hope the black community comes out,” Graham said, “because the Republicans want this seat and are going to do what they have to do.’’
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.