It isn’t often that a special election to fill a vacancy for one of 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives attracts international attention.
But that’s precisely the case in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, in the race on May 7 to succeed Republican Rep. Tim Scott, who was appointed to the U.S. Senate last year. In large part, the attention is because of the controversial nature of the Republican nominee.
Former two-term Gov. Mark Sanford, whose political career and national ambitions were destroyed in 2009 when he admitted an extramarital affair with an Argentine woman, is back.
Now divorced and engaged to his onetime mistress, María Belén Chapur, Sanford won the run-off for the Republican nomination in the 1st District — which he represented from 1994-2000 — with a handsome 57 percent of the vote.
“I’m well aware of Mark Sanford and his problems,” a correspondent for a major French publication told me recently. “Hiking problems.”
My colleague was referring to then-Gov. Sanford’s celebrated excuse for his absence from the state capitol — hiking along the Appalachian Trail — before admitting he was out of the country with his then-mistress.
Already sensing they can pick up a district they last won in 1978, Democrats are pouring in major dollars and top-flight campaigners to help nominee Elizabeth Colbert Busch, college administrator and sister of late-night TV comic Stephen Colbert (although she pronounces the name with a hard ‘t’).
On April 15, Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, along with Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, will host a fundraising event in Washington, D.C., for Colbert Busch.
Given a national fundraising letter by Gillibrand slamming Sanford for using “taxpayer money to visit his mistress,” is there a chance enough women voters in the 1st District could defect from the GOP nominee to elect Colbert Busch?
“For political reasons, some would advance that perspective about women voters in the district,” Sanford told me last week. “But I don’t see it. The people in this district I talk to won’t judge me on my worst day or my best day. They care a lot about government getting into their pockets or their wallets.”
In an interview after watching one of his four sons compete in a track meet, Sanford discussed with me at length about how he would deal with the controversy, as well as the issues that he thinks will make a difference in the race.
Sanford has already spoken during the primary about “a God of second chances,” and now speaks almost exclusively about spending and the debt — the same issues on which he came out of nowhere to win his first race for Congress nearly two decades ago.
“This campaign is about whether the government should have a role in the creation of jobs or whether a larger role should be given to free enterprise to create jobs,” Sanford said. “My opponent has praised a wind-tunnel facility here that was created with stimulus money and, she says, created 132 jobs. But the General Accounting Office scored the facility and said each job cost more than $300,000 to create. The private sector could create more jobs at a much smaller cost.”
Sanford also took issue with his Democratic opponent on the celebrated case in which the Obama-controlled National Labor Relations Board went after Boeing for opening a plant in right-to-work South Carolina instead of Washington state. The NLRB eventually dropped the suit.
“The union that brought the case against Boeing has contributed to her,” said Sanford, adding that he would always speak out against “recess-appointed boards trying to determine employment policy rather than private business.”
The GOP nominee also pointed out that even people who have not voted for him before in the Charleston-area coastal district are telling him they support him now because “they know a vote for [Colbert Busch] is a vote for Nancy Pelosi [as House speaker].”
As he did in 1994, Sanford has signed the pledge from U.S. Term Limits to vote in favor of limiting U.S. representatives to three terms. While the group no longer requires signers to pledge to limit their own terms — as Sanford did in 1994 and honored in 2000 — the South Carolinian nonetheless made a public limitation of his tenure in the House to 12 years.
Recalling that former GOP Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina did the same, Sanford said, “If it’s good enough for Jim DeMint, it’s good enough for me.”
Discussing the race the whole world is increasingly watching, former GOP Rep. John Napier of South Carolina told me “there will be a lot of money and other resources put in by both parties in this race, but given the advantage in Republican voters here, I would have to say the advantage belongs to Mr. Sanford.”
Republicans have a huge advantage over Democrats in the 1st District. Scott won his re-election bid last year, trouncing his opponent 65 percent to 29 percent, before being appointed to the Senate to replace DeMint.
But clearly these are unusual circumstances in which the reliable voting patterns may not mean much — or may mean a lot, if voters respond to Colbert Busch’s stands on issues rather than Sanford’s “hiking problems.”
John Gizzi is the former political editor for Human Events, working for the conservative weekly from 1979 to 2013. Gizzi is a recipient of the William A. Rusher Award for Journalistic Excellence, was named Journalist of the Year by the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2002, and has appeared on hundreds of radio and TV talk shows.
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