Could Mark Sanford pull off this special election on Tuesday after all? It’s more than possible.
Democrats and Republicans agree the former governor has half a shot at winning the 1st District special election Tuesday.
Only a week ago, operatives were preparing Sanford’s political obituary. But internal and public polls showed the race closing — and suddenly his return to the Palmetto State’s congressional delegation has become more than a possibility.
Publicly, Democrats say they’re unsure if their nominee, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, can win this heavily Republican district.
“I think the race is too close to call,” said outgoing state Democratic Chairman Dick Harpootlian. Colbert Busch is “probably up a couple, 3 points but that’s within the margin of error.”
But even Republicans — some of whom prefer Sanford not return to Congress — privately admit they see a path for him to victory.
“I do, actually,” a GOP Washington operative said. “It’s South Carolina. Stranger things have happened. It’s a crazy, crazy state.”
It’s been four years since Sanford disappeared from the governor’s office to pursue an extramarital affair in Argentina — meanwhile famously telling his staff he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. His comeback campaign featured no shortage of self-inflicted drama either.
After Sanford won his party’s nod in a runoff, The Associated Press reported that his former wife accused him of trespassing on her property in February. The National Republican Congressional Committee swiftly announced that it would not support Sanford’s campaign, and other national GOP groups followed suit.
That’s when Colbert Busch surged. Democrats plunged hundreds of thousands of dollars into the South Carolina airwaves and sent national operatives into the region to support Colbert Busch.
Overnight, operatives started calling Sanford the underdog — a word Democrats now loathe.
“No, no, no,” a state Democratic operative said on May 3 when asked if the word should be applied to him.
But a flurry of endorsements, including nods from the state’s two Republican senators, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, began to drown out the Sanford sideshows. As recently as mid-April, a Washington Post reporter had a difficult time finding anyone in the delegation who would even discuss Sanford on the record.
The NRCC held firm on its decision to not support Sanford or spend any funds on his behalf. But the endorsements from some state and national Republicans show that some in the party are actively preparing for a delegation that could include Sanford.
If that happens, few expect him to be a reliable party-line vote, given that national Republicans rejected him during key points in his campaign.
Meanwhile, Democrats concede that winning is preferable, but they point to a silver lining in losing.
“They will have Mark Sanford as the new face of their party,” one national Democratic strategist said. “I’d rather win, but losing has its upside.”
If Sanford wins, Democrats can continue to push their political narrative of Republicans nominating “damaged” candidates. Already, Harpootlian compared Sanford to other failed Republican nominees, including Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell and former Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri.
“This is another instance in which the Republican electorate picked somebody that probably couldn’t win,” Harpootlian said. “That message needs to be driven home, which will divide the Republican Party even more.”
“We think it’s funny,” he added.
But it is serious business to national Democrats. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recruiters can use a Colbert Busch win to make this pitch to weary Democratic candidates in conservative districts: Why don’t you build a campaign and wait to see whom the Republicans nominate.
What’s more, special-election victories can boost a party’s fundraising in the weeks that follow.
Still, given the district’s makeup, some in Washington have wondered why the Democrats played in South Carolina’s 1st District. Colbert Busch will have a difficult time winning re-election against a different candidate in 2014.
What’s more, the balance of power in the House does not rest with Tuesday’s outcome. House Republicans have a 17-seat advantage, and it’s hard to see how a single vote would influence any major legislation this Congress.
Polls close at 7 p.m. EDT.