Can a Colbert can turn Charleston blue?

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.

Patrik Jonsson/Staff
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
James Island resident Liz McGinnigle says the Colbert clan's close claims to James Island, where South Carolina families hark back generations, could help Elizabeth Colbert-Busch prevail in the 1st District special election on May 7.

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.

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.

She has also witnessed drama and tragedy first-hand, enduring the death of her father and brothers when she was 19, and becoming an eyewitness to planes crashing into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

IF Colbert-Busch wins, she'll be the first woman to hold the seat since Democratic Rep. Clara Gooding McMillan, who represented Charleston from 1939 to 1941.

While the TV personality Stephen Colbert has toyed with a presidential run and even raised $1 million for a political PAC, the real-life Mr. Colbert talked more soberly about his support for his sister at a recent fundraiser, even revealing her nickname: "Lulu." The Colbert name has certainly not hurt Colbert-Busch's fundraising efforts, which so far are in line with her major Republican opponents.

"What Lulu is able to do is bring people together for the common good," Mr. Colbert said. "One of the things I thought when Lulu said she was going to run for Congress was how lucky it would be for the Lowcountry and South Carolina to have her, not only because she is hard-working … but because she is sane. I like South Carolina, but we're a crazy state. I think we invented crazy, from John C. Calhoun's nullification act to Lulu's possible opponent, the former governor of the Appalachian Trail, Mark Sanford."

Indeed, the appearance of Mr. Sanford, whose governorship ended in disgrace after it was revealed he disappeared for five days not to hike the Appalachian Trail but for a tryst with an Argentinean news anchor, has brought attention to the race, and raised concerns among Republicans that Sanford may come victorious through the primary only to face abandonment by conservative women voters in the general election. Sanford has struggled to break above 35 percent support.

A sleeper candidate is former Charleston County Council Chairman Curtis Bostic, an attorney and retired Marine, whose "stop spending" campaign is almost entirely grassroots and has thus flown under the radar of much of the political horse race betting.

Mr. Bostic, who lives outside the 1st district (which is okay under South Carolina election law), was featured on a CBS News report in 2010 as the attorney representing a Christian adoption agency facing allegations of human trafficking, a possible attack point for a Democrat should Bostic win the nomination.

Just to juice the national interest further, another possible opponent for Colbert-Busch, who is heavily favored in a two-way Democratic primary on Tuesday, is high school science teacher Teddy Turner, the son of liberal cable magnate Ted Turner, running as a Republican.

But perhaps the biggest unknown in whether Colbert Busch can win, and whether modern-day South Carolina is ready to elect a woman Democrat to Congress, is the extent to which Charleston has begun to mirror parts of the South where progressive newcomers have begun to soften Republicanism and at least open the door to new kinds of candidates, with new ideas and ideologies.

"There's a lot of people moving into Charleston that could be turned off by the social issues of the Republican party," says Gibbs Knotts, chair of the political science department at the College of Charleston. "That fact may not ultimately shift this to a competitive election, but it is a dynamic that's going to help [Colbert-Busch], because we're seeing a bit of the dynamic that we've seen in northern Virginia and [North Carolina's Triangle region] starting in Charleston."

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.

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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