Why South Carolina’s Special Election Is Bizarre

Photograph by Bruce Smith/AP Photo

Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford hugs friend Julia Flood of Mount Pleasant, S.C., after he voted in Charleston, S.C., on April 2, 2013.

The special election in South Carolina’s Charleston-area 1st District has atypical timing (May 7), will generate low voter-turnout and pits the sister of a television celebrity against a former governor seeking redemption after scandal. Simply put, it’s an unusual race.

Republican nominee Mark Sanford is a former governor and congressman attempting a political comeback. Four years ago, he admitted to an extramarital affair with an Argentine woman he visited out of state without telling his gubernatorial staff, who initially said he was away hiking in the Appalachian mountains. Sanford won a Republican runoff on April 2 with 57 percent of the vote. The woman, now his fiancee, joined him at his victory party.

Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch is more of a political blank-slate, a business-development and shipping executive seeking office for the first time and without a voting record to analyze. Celebrity attaches to her candidacy by way of her younger brother, political satirist Stephen Colbert, star of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.”

Here are five other reasons why the election is sensational:

*Colbert Busch is competitive. A district like South Carolina’s 1st doesn’t appear competitive on paper: It backed Republican Mitt Romney over President Barack Obama by 58 percent to 40 percent in 2012. Just 6 percent of all districts last year voted for one party’s presidential nominee and the opposite party’s House candidate. Yet Sanford’s personal baggage is one reason Colbert Busch has a shot at an upset in a district most recently held by Republican Tim Scott, who’s now a senator.

*Scott wanted Sanford to resign as governor. As a state House member in 2009, Scott was among more than 60 Republican legislators who asked for Sanford’s resignation in a letter that said his actions were  “destructive to our state’s image on a worldwide stage and are harming the stability of our state on many levels.” Sanford rejected resignation and served out his second term.

*Colbert Busch is a former Sanford donor. Colbert Busch gave $500 to Sanford’s 2002 campaign for governor, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Colbert Busch made the donation because Sanford seemed supportive of the shipping company that then employed her, a campaign spokeswoman told Politico.

*Sanford is seeking a governor-t0-House move. More politicians run for governor after serving in the House, as Sanford did earlier in his career, than the other way around. There are some who have made the shift from governor to the House, like Delaware Republican Mike Castle and Maine Democrat Joe Brennan, who did it in small-population states with one and two congressional districts, respectively. After leading South Carolina for eight years ending in 2011, Sanford is trying to become one of the state’s seven House members. He previously served in the House from 1995 to 2001.

*Two S.C. Republican congressmen endorsed a Sanford rival. Reps. Mick Mulvaney and Jeff Duncan backed a Republican candidate who placed third in the first-round party primary on March 19. Sanford may wind up serving in Congress with them.

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