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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.

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At a recent Republican candidates forum, for example, four of the candidates said they believe the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional, a rare support among Republicans for gay marriage in a state that has, like Texas, come to define modern-day conservatism.

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There have been other electoral signs of open-mindedness in the First District. In 2010, voters in the district overwhelmingly elected Tim Scott, an African-American. Mr. Scott defeated the son of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, a former segregationist who fathered a child with the family's black maid.

And in 2008, Rep. Henry Brown, a Republican, barely survived, by 52-48, a major challenge from Democrat Linda Ketner.

For locals like Liz McGinnigle, a self-described "fiscal conservative-hippie-libertarian," a combination of such factors has already turned a potential vote for the Republicans into a vote for Colbert-Busch. "I'm going to vote for her even though she's a Democrat because she hasn't spent my money in Argentina – yet."

So what does Colbert-Busch stand for? While she has been reticent to take partisan positions, often saying, "Bottom line: I'm a businesswoman," she has said she supports gay marriage, expanding gun purchase background checks, and strengthening public education.

"The overall picture is improving the life of the middle class," she told Charleston City Paper recently. "It's giving people jobs again. It's helping with their education. It's supporting growth and prosperity."

Some political pundits are rapping the Democrats, however, for running a "stealth candidate" like Colbert-Busch instead of someone who stands more boldly for progressive values.

"Apparently, for the players in the political-industrial complex, winning a seat and changing the letter of the seat holder from 'R' to 'D' is more important than putting someone in office who wants to represent a progressive voice for the community and the country," wrote Charleston City Paper columnist Mat Catastrophe recently. "Running a 'stealth' candidate is not smart politics for the Democrats, as it means that winning the District 1 race will automatically alienate the very people the party did not want to alienate in the first place."

While the national media has focused on the celebrity names and the quirkiness of South Carolina politics, Alex Sanders, the former chief justice of the South Carolina Court of Appeals, says the race may have deeper meaning for local voters, tied to one issue: the proposed widening of Charlotte Harbor to accommodate a new generation of container ships.

That's one issue that Colbert-Busch, who has long-time ties to the transoceanic container industry, has hit hard in her speeches.

"We can't keep making BMWs if there's no place to ship them from, and any Congressman from the district is going to have to appeal for money from the federal government, which is inconsistent with the tea party version of the Republican position," says Mr. Sanders. "In this case, it's more than just typical bacon, it's the essence of the state's future, and how does a Republican walk that line if you're against federal spending?"


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