Special Elections Offer Opportunities for Both Parties

Special elections sometimes produce results that are unsustainable. A candidate can win a low-turnout special election for his or her party in territory (a House district or state) not generally too friendly to that political party, but be unable to hold the seat next time around. Both Scott Brown and Bob Turner are familiar with this concept. In two upcoming special elections, in South Carolina and Massachusetts, there is an opportunity for the “wrong”  candidate (based on district or state fundamentals) to get it right.

Even if Stephen Colbert was not related to one of the candidates, South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District special election on May 7 would still be getting a lot of attention on the Comedy Central channel. The race to succeed Tim Scott as 1st District representative, following Scott’s appointment to the U.S. Senate by Governor Nikki Haley to replace Jim DeMint, is very close. A few recent private polls conducted for the Democrats show a small lead (within the margin of error) for Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the Democrat nominee, over former governor Mark Sanford. The latest publicly released poll from PPP, a left-leaning automated pollster with a very good track record in 2012, has Sanford ahead by 1%, 47-46  .

A poll taken April 19-21 by the same organization showed Colbert Busch ahead by a healthy 9 point margin. That poll was taken soon after it was revealed that Sanford was being taken to court by his ex-wife for allegedly trespassing at her home on Super Bowl Sunday. Sanford claims he went to the house to watch the game with a few of the couple’s children and provide them some company that day. In any case, the fallout from the trespassing story led the National Republican Congressional Committee to decide not to spend any money to defend the seat. The PPP poll indicated that many Republicans were planning to stay home and not participate in the special election. Some Republicans at the national level seemed to be OK with not having Sanford around as a distraction in Congress, and assumed a stronger candidate could regain the seat for the GOP in the 2014 midterms from Colbert Busch.

Democrats, on the other hand, sensing an excellent opportunity to win a heavily GOP district (Romney beat Obama by 18% in the 1st District last November), are advertising heavily and focusing on Sanford’s marital issues as governor. They are directly addressing Sanford’s adultery and his fabricated tale of hiking the Appalachian Trail when he was off to Argentina to visit with his girlfriend and now fiancée Maria Belen Chapur. In the only debate between the candidates, Colbert Busch challenged Sanford about the incident.

Despite the horrible publicity, and regularly serving as fodder for the late-night comedians, Sanford seems to have recovered a bit since the trespassing story broke. Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball has moved the race back to a tossup after having Colbert Busch the favorite .

Sanford was at one time considered a rising GOP star, a possible vice presidential candidate in 2008 and even a possible presidential contender for 2012 before the embarrassing South American journey derailed all that. Libertarian groups such as the Cato Institute strongly approved of Sanford’s resistance to state and federal spending. In the last  few weeks, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, South Carolina Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, and Governor Nikki Haley have all endorsed Sanford in the special election. So has Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, perhaps looking for an unusual post-election interview, or just happy to endorse the “anything goes” philosophy of life.

What is apparent is that the election will be decided primarily by how voters feel about Sanford and not so much by how they feel about Colbert Busch, who to some extent is a placeholder for those Republicans who are unhappy with Sanford and unwilling to cover their eyes and vote for him. This group is likely to be disproportionately female.