Colbert's Pitch Looms Large in Sister's S.C. Race

Colbert's Pitch Looms Large in Sister's S.C. Race

By Scott Conroy - April 3, 2013

Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford won a Republican primary runoff on Tuesday, becoming his party’s standard-bearer in a May 7 special election to represent the state’s 1st Congressional District.

Under almost any other circumstances, Sanford’s latest step toward an extraordinary political comeback would provide ideal fodder for Stephen Colbert’s satirical TV show on Comedy Central.

But as the one-time rising GOP star-turned-national-punchline enters his stretch run to regain the House seat he held from 1995 to 2001, the particulars are hitting too close to home for Colbert to make light of. Having defeated former Charleston County Councilman Curtis Bostic in the runoff, Sanford’s next opponent is Colbert’s sister, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, who locked up the Democratic nomination in March.

The comedian, who plays a megalomaniacal right-wing cable news host on TV, has already taken the rare step of going out of character in interviews to support Colbert Busch’s candidacy, and he hosted a fundraiser for her at a South Carolina bowling alley in February.

But with a high-profile showdown against Sanford now in effect, Colbert appears set to take an even larger role in promoting his sister’s campaign. He will host a pair of fundraisers for her in New York and Washington, CNN reported Tuesday, with a minimum get-in donation of $500 and “event chair” tickets carrying a price tag of $10,000 each.

"Lulu and I have been through a lot together,” a decidedly earnest Colbert wrote on the events’ invitation. “And I know she is a bright, competent, caring woman who will work hard on behalf of all the citizens of South Carolina's 1st Congressional District."

The comedian has vowed not to shy from making jokes about the race when appropriate, and he has already referred to Sanford as the “former Governor of the Appalachian Trail,” a reference to the scandalized pol’s initial excuse for a week-long absence from office in 2009. He was later discovered to have visited his mistress in Argentina.

But Colbert, gauging by his typically acidic standards, has thus far pulled his punches. And in hosting high-dollar fundraisers within an electoral structure he has lampooned so deliciously in the past, Colbert is entering particularly novel territory. Throughout the 2012 presidential campaign cycle, he skewered a campaign finance system laden with contradictions, one that permits political players to bend the parameters of credibility without technically breaking the law.

His comedic shtick had a real impact on his viewers’ awareness of an issue that was difficult for many to understand, and yet which also was a defining facet of the race.

In August of 2011, the mischief-minded Colbert founded a memorably titled political action committee: Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow. It raised over $1 million and ran actual TV advertisements in advance of the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa.

“Mr. Colbert not only talks about process, he has become a part of it,” the New York Times affirmed at the time.

Then in January 2012, he paid homage to his home state by announcing that he was running for “president of the United States of South Carolina.” That led ultimately to a farcical ticket with one-time Republican candidate Herman Cain, which netted over 6,000 votes in the Palmetto State primary.

Advocates of campaign finance transparency note that since the money Colbert intends to raise for his sister will come from identified sources, he would not be breaking the principles he championed in his satire-laced crusades against anonymous donors fueling the murky world of super PACs.

Still, with his latest move into the fundraising arena, Colbert may be risking some of the clout he developed as a crusader against big money in politics, even as he downplays his own influence in his sister’s race.

"I want people to know this is her own thing. It's not me doing anything," Colbert told the Associated Press in February.

For her part, Colbert Busch also has sought -- officially, at least -- to keep the focus squarely on her own candidacy. Asked about the comedian’s impact on the campaign, Colbert Busch spokesperson James Smith pivoted quickly to detail the Democrat’s close ties with all of the members of her immediate family, not just Stephen.

“Her roots are so deep in the community -- people know her here,” Smith said. “Stephen definitely highlights some of the national interest, but down here . . . her message and her story are what’s resonating in the polls.”

But Colbert Busch is embracing her TV star brother’s high profile in more subtle ways. Two of the five photographs featured in the biography section of her campaign website, for instance, show the candidate with her famous sibling. And she is well aware of the massive attention that his efforts to promote her candidacy will continue to generate.

The campaign would not say whether Colbert will stump in public with his sister over the next month, but there is no doubt that his efforts on her behalf will be felt deeply, even if he sticks to his vow not to promote her candidacy on the Monday-through-Thursday TV show.

“I would be a tad surprised if he didn't come down to the district to help his sister,” said South Carolina Democratic strategist Tyler Jones, who is not directly involved in the race. “But to be honest, I don't think it will matter. She's an enormously strong candidate with or without her brother. He may be able to bring in some additional national money, but Elizabeth will win this race on her own merits and record of being a fiscally conservative businesswoman who knows how to create jobs in the Lowcountry.”

Colbert Busch has never held political office and is taking a leave of absence during the campaign from her job as the director of business development for Clemson University's wind turbine testing facility. She has positioned herself as a pro-business, fiscally moderate Democrat who is in tune with the conservative-leaning voters of the coastal district.

Her campaign released an internal poll on Monday showing the Democrat leading Sanford by three points among likely voters. Though it is often said that confident campaigns don’t release their internal poll numbers, the consensus among most South Carolina political watchers is that Sanford is favored to regain his old House seat but that his opponent has a shot at an upset.

If public polling in the coming days shows that the race is indeed tight, the national campaign committees from both parties will no doubt become actively involved, and the two high-dollar fundraisers in New York and Washington may not be the last time Colbert makes his presence felt before May 7. 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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