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Can a Colbert can turn Charleston blue? (+video)

Conventional political wisdom says Elizabeth Colbert-Busch, a Charlestonian, Democrat, and sister of TV comedian Stephen Colbert, is more likely to ice skate in Charleston Harbor than win a seat in the House. Yet stranger things have happened in South Carolina.

By Staff Writer / March 16, 2013

Charleston, S.C., may have witnessed the beginning of the Civil War with the shots at Fort Sumter, but today's Charlestonians are among the most progressive residents in a state that has come to embody modern Republicanism.

Patrik Jonsson/Staff

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CHARLESTON, S.C.

When voters in South Carolina talk about Elizabeth Colbert-Busch, a Democratic candidate in a special election to fill the 1st District Congressional seat, they tend to focus less on her famous TV brother, Stephen Colbert, and more on the place where she grew up: James Island.

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With around 20,000 residents, James Island is the working-class suburb of Charleston, the "edge of America" as one sign says, a throwback sort of place where churches promote grace as "the final frontier."

To be sure, Ms. Colbert-Busch grew up in her large Catholic family, along with her younger brother, in a house off a dirt road on James Island. Her father, before dying in a plane crash along with two of his sons in 1974, was a vice president at the local medical school. But according to Mr. Colbert, the family also embraced an island culture dominated by pickups, piles of crab pots, white-booted fishermen, a place where the comedian once said “I spent my whole childhood on the water, fishing and crabbing and shrimping … Home for me is being in the water, like floating in a creek."

Mitt Romney trounced President Obama last year by 18 points in a district that stretches from Charleston up the coast to the North Carolina border, a region that can claim major influence on the modern Republican party. In a place where genteel conservative values clearly prevail, most political scientists say a Colbert-Busch victory is unlikely, with Roll Call handicapping the outcome as "likely Republican." The seat opened up earlier this year when Rep. Tim Scott was tapped by Gov. Nikki Haley to replace Sen. Jim DeMint, who stepped down to head a conservative think tank.

Yet Colbert-Bush's familial ties to Charleston and its working class island environs is part of an emerging scenario of caveats and pop culture X factors that could flip preconceptions about this most conservative of red states. As the winners of a 16-person Republican primary field face a likely runoff before the May 7 general election, the eventual Republican nominee could further bolster the prospects of a major political upset in the nation's Lowcountry.

"I think it'd be tough for a Democrat to hold that district, but at the same time I think something crazy could happen and a Democrat could win it," says Seth McKee, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg and a former Charleston resident.

A political neophyte, Colbert-Busch isn't strong on policy prescriptions, but touts a rich, largely non-ideological personal story, that includes a long stint as a single mother with a $14,000 a year job, a return to college, a soaring career in international trade, all of which led to her current position as the head of a Clemson University business development arm.

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