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On Election Day, Sanford vs. Colbert Busch a Tossup

On Election Day, Sanford vs. Colbert Busch a Tossup

By Scott Conroy - May 7, 2013

Perhaps it is fitting that inclement weather could play a role in deciding the outcome of Tuesday’s special U.S. House election in South Carolina’s 1st District. After all, the race has been turbulent and unpredictable from the get-go.

Forecasts called for intermittent showers and thunderstorms around Charleston as voters head to the polls, adding a wrinkle to both sides’ turnout models, which were already steeped in guesswork.

The high-profile battle between former Republican Gov. Mark Sanford and Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch has seen everything from an embarrassing accusation of trespassing from Sanford’s ex-wife to rare, out-of-character appearances by Colbert Busch’s brother Stephen Colbert, the satirist best known for lampooning members of Congress rather than helping them raise money.

In a scene perhaps more befitting the latter’s Comedy Central TV show, Sanford at one point even staged a “debate” on a Charleston sidewalk against a life-size poster of Nancy Pelosi (a stand-in for his opponent).

Weeks later, there was a real debate between the actual candidates that was notable for its intensity on both sides, highlighted by the moment when Colbert Busch leveled a cutting reminder of Sanford’s infamous 2009 “hike on the Appalachian trail” -- his cover story when he left the state unannounced to pursue an affair with his mistress in Argentina.

As the race comes to an end on Tuesday, who will succeed appointed Republican Sen. Tim Scott in the GOP-leaning coastal district remains very much in doubt.

And, adding another layer of intrigue to the contest, many statewide and national Republicans have privately expressed hope that Colbert Busch will prevail, thereby robbing Democrats of an easy punching bag in a congressional district that Mitt Romney won by 18 points last November.

“There are certain Republicans who are interested in seeing an 18-month Democratic term, in order that someone more in line with the Republican Party in South Carolina can be the next nominee to run against her [in 2014],” explained South Carolina Republican strategist Dave Wilson, who called the race was “a coin flip” heading into Election Day. “A lot of people are thinking maybe this will finally put the discussion of Sanford to rest. But Sanford has a way of seemingly resurrecting himself.”

The former two-term governor, who held the 1st District seat from 1995 to 2001, emerged from a crowded Republican field to become his party’s nominee in early April and appeared poised for a relatively easy general election victory. But that was before the revelation that Jenny Sanford had issued a court complaint against her ex-husband, accusing him of trespassing on her property in violation of their divorce agreement.

Sanford admitted to having been in his ex-wife’s home without her permission to watch the Super Bowl with one of their sons, and amid the resulting fallout he appeared suddenly on the verge of his first campaign loss ever.

National Republicans subsequently pulled back from what was expected to be significant financial support for Sanford, and Colbert Busch surged ahead in the polls, touting a positive, centrist message while her opponent sunk under the weight of his own baggage.

But the GOP standard-bearer’s efforts to link Colbert Busch to the national Democrats funding her campaign -- and particularly to Pelosi -- have had an impact.

According to a survey released by the Democratically affiliated Public Policy Polling on Monday, the candidates were in a statistical dead heat, with the Republican leading the Democrat among likely voters by 47 percent to 46 percent. Four percent of those polled supported the Green Party candidate and 4 percent remained undecided.

The unpredictability of the race’s outcome has left both sides scrounging for every vote down the homestretch.

Sanford -- who has always campaigned in an aggressive, freewheeling style -- has 10 public events planned around the district on Election Day before he watches returns with campaign workers and volunteers at a restaurant in Mt. Pleasant.

Colbert Busch plans to vote on Tuesday morning alongside her 92-year-old mother, Lorna, who was born the week in 1920 when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which assured women of the right to vote, was ratified, according to the Democrat’s campaign.

“It’s a tight race; we knew this from the beginning,” Colbert Busch spokesperson James Smith said Monday. “The enthusiasm for Elizabeth is absolutely incredible, and we think the turnout tomorrow’s going to be in our favor.”

Both sides are expecting low turnout, with one Republican model predicting that just over 100,000 votes will be cast. If that number proves accurate, the 2013 special election would see a little over one-third of the turnout in 2012, when Scott was easily re-elected before Gov. Nikki Haley appointed him in December to replace Jim DeMint in the Senate.

Some Sanford allies believe that the district’s heavy Republican bent will tip the scales in their favor, as the former governor has recovered nicely from the trespassing report over the last couple of weeks.

According to one GOP source, Colbert Busch’s hopes rest largely on African-American turnout being above 11 percent.

South Carolina Democratic strategist Tyler Jones argued that enthusiasm remained on the political newcomer’s side. “Colbert-Busch's voters would vote in a hurricane to boost the chances of a Democrat winning this district,” he said. “If Colbert-Busch pulls this off, it would be the biggest political upset in South Carolina since Strom Thurmond won a write-in campaign for U.S. Senate in 1954. That's going to get Democrats to the polls.”

Polls will close Tuesday at 7 p.m. Eastern time. 

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

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