In my experience covering congressional campaigns, two ironclad rules guide election punditry. One, expect the unexpected when there's a special election taking place. Second, scandals are a surefire formula for disaster for the offending party, no matter the ideological disposition of the electorate.
Those two factors apply to the upcoming South Carolina congressional contest pitting former Republican Gov. Mark Sanford against Elizabeth Colbert Busch. It's a matchup for the ages: Sanford, who famously lied about hiking on the Appalachian Trail while cheating on his wife in Argentina, and Colbert Busch, the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert. Even if this race wasn't competitive, there would still be political reporters flocking to Charleston to catch a celebrity sideshow. But aside from the spectacle, it's shaping up to be one hell of a barnburner.
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The early expectations were that Sanford would be the front-runner despite his scandal. He's running in a Republican district where Mitt Romney took 59 percent of the vote. But recent polling from Democrats, one automated survey from Public Policy Polling and one internal from Colbert Busch's campaign, actually show the Democrat leading.
That shouldn't be surprising to anyone following South Carolina politics. Sanford not only became a national spectacle at the end of his governorship but also ended with awful job approval ratings. They haven't recovered much since. He did enough damage control in the primary to win 37 percent of the vote in a 16-candidate field, and 57 percent in the runoff against an underfunded, weak opponent. For a former governor with near-universal name identification, that's hardly the sign of an imposing candidate.