By Cameron Joseph - 05/07/13 09:00 AM EDT
The House race in South Carolina has turned back into a toss-up, giving Republican Mark Sanford a shot at an incredible political comeback in Tuesday’s special election.
Polls put the race against Elizabeth Colbert Busch (D) in a dead heat despite an intense focus on Sanford’s personal missteps and a spending barrage by Democrats and their allies.
Strategists in both parties predict a photo finish in the heavily Republican district, which is based in Charleston and went for GOP nominee Mitt Romney by 18 points in 2012.
Former South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson, who ran the state GOP when Sanford was governor, predicted Sanford would eke out a narrow win.
“It’s nearly a 20-point Republican district and we’re talking about a 2- or 3-point win, and that should tell you the damage [Sanford’s] personal baggage has caused,” Dawson said. “But it’s still a ruby-red district.”
The former governor seems to have recovered from trespassing allegations filed by his ex-wife, though the extramarital affair that shattered his political career and their marriage continues to haunt him politically.
A survey released Sunday night from the Democratic-affiliated Public Policy Polling (PPP) gave Sanford a 1-point lead in the race. Those numbers were in line with other public polling, but were a major reversal from a PPP survey conducted right after the trespassing charges were made public that gave Colbert Busch a 9-point lead.
In the latest PPP poll, Colbert Busch continued to have a sizable edge on personal approval, but more voters say their political views match up with Sanford’s.
Sanford and his ex-wife are due in court on Thursday. A judge rejected Jenny Sanford’s request to ban television cameras and recording devices in the courtroom, raising the possibility of an embarrassing public spectacle for the former governor just two days after the election.
It’s unclear when the victor’s swearing-in ceremony will be held. The last special-election winner was sworn in two days after the election, but Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has flexibility in what day he chooses.
Both candidates have spent the final days of the campaign focused on the ground game.
Colbert Busch, the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert, is trying to turn out the district’s small Democratic base — especially the 20 percent of registered voters there who are African-American. Civil rights leader and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) stumped for her in Beaufort, S.C., over the weekend, and Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) was by her side on Sunday.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley (D), a longtime political fixture in the area, joined Colbert Busch at a Monday afternoon campaign stop, describing her as a “tough-minded businesswoman who will work hard for us.” She has emphasized her centrist bona fides while letting outside groups attack Sanford over his marital infidelities.
Sanford, who’s been held at arm’s length by many in the GOP establishment, has recently seen an uptick in support from Republican leaders in the state — and gotten some help from outside the party machine.
In the past week, Sanford received an endorsement from Scott and had a fundraiser hosted for him by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R). Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who endorsed Sanford shortly after his primary win, tweeted out messages of support.
The conservative organizations Tea Party Express and FreedomWorks also issued last-minute endorsements of Sanford, and Independent Women’s Voice has spent $100,000 on ads tying Colbert Busch to the national Democratic Party.
Sanford has stuck to the same message throughout his campaign: that Colbert Busch is too liberal and that national support for her campaign shows that she’ll vote with her party over the conservative district. He’s repeatedly campaigned with a cutout of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and has linked the two together in campaign ads.
But Colbert Busch and her allies have had a huge spending advantage in the race, partly due to the National Republican Congressional Committee’s decision after the trespassing charges to deny him any help for the remainder of the campaign. That’s given Colbert Busch a big edge on the airwaves — and could make a difference on the ground as well.
Democrats say they have a well-organized field program with paid staffers, and claim to have knocked on 68,000 doors and made 20,000 phone calls in the two months since the election began. Without national funding, Sanford’s campaign has had to rely on lightly trained volunteers.
“Mark’s had to do get-out-the-vote with volunteers. She’s been able to do it with real money, and that’s hard to poll,” said Dawson. “I love volunteers but when you’re paying folks to get information and using that technology, that’s an advantage. I think that’s keeping her in the race.”