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.
Stu Rothenberg, one of the sharpest election analysts, wrote an article Tuesday downplaying the significance of the internal polling showing Colbert Busch ahead, mocking the poll memo's cherry-picked findings. But picking apart an optimistic polling memo is missing the forest for the trees. For a Democratic candidate to even be polling competitively in a solidly Republican district (R+11 PVI, per The Cook Political Report) suggests something is seriously amiss. It's even more striking when the Republican candidate is as well-defined as Sanford -- the numbers aren't a reflection of one candidate's name identification advantage.
Sure, Colbert Busch's personal favorability is artificially high since she hasn't faced many Republican attacks -- yet. That will change now that Sanford is the nominee. Expect Republicans to carpet-bomb the district with ads portraying her as an out-of-touch liberal. They recognize Sanford is far from a lock to win the seat, and they won't take anything for granted.
Based on the fundamentals, this race is no better than a toss-up. Enough Republicans will either stay home or consider supporting Colbert Busch to mitigate the partisan advantage the party holds in the district.
Sanford's personal problems are the biggest reason the seat will be in play. There's a long list of House seats flipping in the wake of scandal: Anthony Weiner saw his Queens district flip to Republicans in the wake of his sex scandal. One month after winning a Republican primary in March 2006, an indicted Tom DeLay opted not to run for reelection, recognizing there was a good chance he'd lose despite representing one of the most Republican seats in the country. That same year, Rep. Don Sherwood couldn't overcome the blowback from news that he choked his mistress, coughing up his ruby-red district in northeast Pennsylvania. All those seats were considered safely in one party's corner, until scandal struck.
Second, special elections are notoriously unpredictable. Democrats won several seats in the heart of the Deep South in 2008 off-year elections, and Republicans picked up a seat in Hawaii just before the 2010 midterms. Like all special elections, the race will turn on which side can generate more enthusiasm from the base. Given Sanford's high unfavorable ratings, it's very possible a lot of Republicans will choose to stay home, giving Democrats an opportunity to win the turnout battle.
Third, even though the race is taking place in South Carolina, the Charleston-based district favors country-club Republicans over social conservatives. That could play to Sanford's advantage -- these voters may be more forgiving of his sins -- but it also suggests they'd be more receptive to voting for a moderate Democrat than their more evangelical counterparts in the western part of the state. The district nearly elected an openly gay businesswoman, Linda Ketner, who took 48 percent of the vote in 2008 against then-Republican Rep. Henry Brown.
Win or lose, the race won't have any larger significance beyond Sanford and his sins. But on a tactical level, a Sanford loss would be a painful reminder of the GOP's limitations in shaping a primary field to its advantage. In the runoff, Republicans were saddled with the two candidates with glaring flaws: Sanford and social-conservative activist Curtis Bostic, who couldn't raise money or put a professional operation together. If any of the other nameless, baggage-less Republicans won the nomination, they'd be the clear favorite to win the seat.
Senate Republicans regularly face reminders of their weak nominees, from Todd Akin to Sharron Angle to Christine O'Donnell. With a comfortable majority, the stakes aren't as high for House Republicans, but Mark Sanford would join that illustrious company if he fumbles away what should be a safely Republican seat.