Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) has the inside track in Tuesday's GOP primary runoff for the state’s open House seat, but a victory hardly provides him a chance to rest easy.
The reason: Businesswoman Elizabeth Colbert Busch (D) has been running a strong campaign and observers in both parties believe the May 7 special election could be close despite the district's heavy Republican lean.
Sanford would begin the general election campaign as the favorite if he wins Tuesday’s Republican primary over former Charleston City Councilman Curtis Bostic, say both Democrats and Republicans.
But a Colbert Busch upset could be in the offing.
Here are five reasons why the Democratic candidate, best known nationally as the sister of late-night satirist Stephen Colbert, might be able to pull off an upset.
1. Voters haven’t forgiven Mark Sanford
A number of voters continue to feel betrayed by Sanford over the 2009 scandal that cost him his reputation and a promising political future — when he admitted to an extramarital affair after telling staffers he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail.
A recent survey from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling showed that 58 percent of voters hold an unfavorable opinion of Sanford, while just 34 percent like him.
Even more troubling for the former governor: Fully 39 percent of Republicans in the poll disapprove of him, while 55 percent approved.
Sanford has repeatedly apologized for the affair during the campaign — hoping voters will move on — before pivoting to his strength, economic issues.
But during the primary the tryst has rarely come up. While some national Republicans have voiced concerns about Sanford’s return, his GOP opponents largely avoided attacking him over his past. That’s unlikely to continue during the general election.
2. Colbert Busch has run a strong campaign
Colbert Busch has run a campaign concentrating on her business career and community efforts. Running essentially unopposed, she was able to focus on burnishing her centrist credentials and raise money while Sanford had to worry about the GOP primary.
While most in the national audience know Colbert Busch best for her brother, she’s long been involved in the Charleston community and polls show she’s well-known and fairly well-liked.
Republicans promise to try to put some dents in that image. One national Republican told The Hill that “we need to fight back against her ‘small businesswoman job creator' mantra.”
They promise to attack her for supporting parts of ObamaCare and for receiving donations from unions that opposed Boeing opening up plants in the Charleston area.
But with a five-week general election campaign, it may be difficult to define her fast enough.
3. Special elections are unpredictable
While Republicans normally have a strong edge in the district, special elections are notoriously unpredictable, low-turnout affairs.
In just the past election cycle, former Rep. Kathy Hochul (D-N.Y.) won a special election in a heavily Republican open seat in upstate New York and former Rep. Bob Turner (R-N.Y.) won a special election in a heavily Democratic New York City district.
Other special elections have surprised over the years: Democrats won a string of seats in surprising districts in Louisiana, Mississippi and exurban Illinois in the last few years.
“They're called special for a reason,” one national Republican strategist, who is concerned about the race’s outcome, told The Hill.
“Republicans in general have learned special elections can sneak up on you.”
4. Polls show the race is close
Two recent polls show Colbert Busch with a slight lead over Sanford.
Her campaign released one survey Monday afternoon that had her leading Sanford by 47 to 44 percent.
While campaigns’ internal polls should always be viewed with some skepticism, that isn’t far off from the PPP poll, which had her up by 47 to 45 percent.
In both polls, more Republicans were undecided than independents and Democrats, and could come home to their party’s nominee if Sanford wins Tuesday’s primary.
But the big question mark is whether Sanford can unite the party’s base quickly enough and convince people to come out solely to vote for him, on a day when the race is the main attraction and few will be turning out to vote for other races.
5. Democrats have competed in the district before
While the Charleston-based district is heavily Republican — Mitt Romney carried it by 18 percentage points — it is less socially conservative, with more independent voters, than in other parts of South Carolina where most white voters are solidly Republican.
The district’s population is also more than 20 percent African American.
That’s led to some surprisingly close races: In 2008, former Rep. Henry Brown (R-S.C.) won reelection there with just 52 percent of the vote against an openly lesbian, unwaveringly liberal candidate.
Democrats have also won at the local level. Charleston’s longtime mayor is a Democrat, and while the district is split between greater Charleston and greater Beaufort, some fiscally conservative Democrats have been competitive in other parts of the region.