Republican Mark Sanford won yesterday’s South Carolina 1 special election by a 54 percent-45 percent margin over Democrat Elizabeth Colbert (the alleged comedian Stephen Colbert’s sister) Busch. The turnout of 143,357 was pretty high. This was less than the 62 percent-34 percent reelection victory of Republican Tim Scott in the 2012 general election with a turnout of 290,013, and less than Mitt Romney’s 58 percent-40 percent margin in the district, but still decisive and impressive. (Scott was appointed to the Senate by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, thus opening up the vacancy now filled by Sanford, who was elected in a similar predecessor SC-1 in 1994, 1996 and 1998.)
Thus despite his personal liabilities -– Sanford as governor in 2009 was caught running off to Argentina to be with his then-girlfriend/now-fiancee when he was married to the mother of his sons and governor of South Carolina –- Sanford won. He charged that Colbert Busch was a creature of former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and pointed out that she received contributions from the labor unions that supported the National Labor Relations Board action that threatened to shut down the Boeing 787 assembly plant in North Charleston. Republican primary and runoff voters had the opportunity to choose another candidate, but in their wisdom chose the one candidate with personal blemishes which might prevent him from winning a solidly Republican district. On their behalf it may be said that as congressman and governor Sanford was a strong fiscal conservative.
The National Republican Congressional Committee declined to back Sanford two weeks ago, and a Public Policy Polling poll showed him 9 percent behind Colbert Busch. From the Sanford campaign’s email traffic I gather that Colbert Busch did little personal campaigning but tried to win based on celebrity and heavy campaign spending by Democratic groups; in their single debate she attacked Sanford for his personal conduct. Into the breach stepped the Independent Women’s Voice, which spent about $250,000 on TV and radio ads and phone calls supporting Sanford as a free-market conservative. It ran a late print ad in the Charleston Post & Courier stating: “We are your mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, co-workers, neighbors and friends. We stand on principle. We vote on the issues. Tomorrow’s election is vital to the future of our country, and given the choice before us, we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We support Mark Sanford. Please vote Mark Sanford tomorrow.”
Special elections are often opportunities for the candidate of a minority party to win in a constituency it can’t ordinarily hope to win in a special election. This looked like such an opportunity for Democrats. As my article in the Tuesday Wall Street Journal pointed out, Republicans have won majorities in the House of Representatives in eight of the last 10 elections over the last two decades. In six of those elections, including 2012, Republicans have won between 48 percent and 51 percent of the popular vote for the House and Democrats have won between 46 percent and 49 percent. Democrats did better in two elections, 2006 and 2008, when Republicans were penalized for perceived incompetence on Iraq and the financial crisis. Republicans did better in two elections, 1994 and 2010, when Democrats were penalized for perceived ideological overreach.
In the SC-1 special election the Republican was penalized somewhat for perceived personal catastrophe -- Sanford ran 4 percent behind Mitt Romney’s 2012 percentage -– but the Democrat was still, thanks in part to the IWV effort and to the Sanford campaign’s emphasis on issues, penalized for perceived ideological overreach enough as to be unable to gain more than 5 percent over the Obama 2012 percentage.
It will be interesting to look at the precinct returns to see if Democrats were able to maintain the high participation rate among black voters -- about 20 percent of the potential electorate -– that they did in the 2008 and 2012 general elections. My guess is that they didn’t, but we’ll see.