Why South Carolina special election is no big deal

With a quirky cast of characters, the special election in South Carolina for a seat in the US House is more idiosyncratic than most – but it's still likely to go Republican.

Bruce Smith/AP
Former Charleston County Councilman Curtis Bostic and his wife, Jenny, greet voters at a polling place in Charleston, S.C., on Tuesday. Mr. Bostic faced former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford on Tuesday in the Republican primary runoff for South Carolina's vacant First Congressional District seat.

In South Carolina’s First Congressional District on Tuesday, voters will decide which Republican – former Gov. Mark Sanford or local city council leader Curtis Bostic – will survive to face Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch in a special election next month.

Could the seat shift power in Congress? No, as Republicans hold an advantage of better than 20 seats in the House.

Will the quirky race for the Palmetto State’s First Congressional District prove a harbinger of the 2014 electoral climate?

Recent history has shown special elections are not clear heralds of the full contests to come. In 2011, Democrats crowed that Kathy Hochul’s victory in a conservative, upstate New York district proved that the budget from Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin would spell political doom for the GOP House majority.

Republicans likewise swore that the win by Rep. Mark Amodei (R) of Nevada in a separate special election that year proved the GOP could withstand a barrage of attacks regarding the Ryan budget.

What turned out in 2012? Murkiness.

First, Ms. Hochul lost her seat, even as Democrats cut into the GOP House advantage. Yet Democrats made very few gains in the sort of solidly red territory where Mr. Amodei was elected.

In the South Carolina special election, the particular characters at play may make the race even more idiosyncratic than most. Ms. Colbert Busch hails from James Island, a particularly distinct suburb of Charleston, and plays up her bona fides as a pragmatic businesswoman. She also has the star power of her brother, comedian Stephen Colbert, at hand.

On the other side are Mr. Sanford, the disgraced former governor who made “walking the Appalachian Trail” an epithet for less modest behavior when he disappeared to Argentina with his mistress; and Mr. Bostic, a lawyer and former US Marine who is a both a champion of the tea party’s fiscal message and a warrior for the homeschooling, evangelical Christian movement.

No matter which Republican comes out on top, could Colbert Busch win in deeply Republican territory?

At first glance, it looks like a long shot. Mitt Romney carried the district with nearly 6 in 10 voters, and Sanford’s first-place showing in the first round of the GOP primary saw him pull in nearly 20,000 votes – more than Colbert Busch’s near-unanimous 15,700 votes.

Sanford represented the district for six years in the 1990s before his eventual governorship and fall from grace.

The last member to represent the district was now-Sen. Tim Scott (R) – a member so deeply imbued with the slash-spending ethos of the tea party that he was tapped to replace the movement’s godfather, Jim DeMint, when Mr. DeMint left the Senate for the presidency of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

That sort of pedigree doesn’t exactly scream “Democratic takeover opportunity.”

But while a GOP win is the projection from professional election-watchers in D.C., there’s also reason to foresee an upset. First, while Sanford has the name recognition and money to win the race, he also has loads of political baggage.

Also, some analysts have suggested the district may have shades of northern Virginia or the North Carolina Research Triangle: A “gentle-ification” and potential political moderation, due to an influx of skilled and highly educated workers, could help a centrist Democrat.

Colbert Busch, no fundraising slouch herself thanks in part to her brother’s celebrity, has internal polling and one poll from liberal-leaning pollster Public Policy Polling placing her neck-and-neck with Sanford and either tied or ahead of Bostic.

And she could get help from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is watching the district “very carefully,” DCCC chairman Steve Israel of New York told Politico’s Mike Allen on March 20.

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