Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch is attempting to walk a fiscal-conservative path to Congress.
Instead of waving the Democratic flag, the Charleston resident and a director of business development for a Clemson institute calls herself a fiscal conservative and a Southern Democrat. She likens herself to former U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings — a popular moderate with a fiscal-conservative bent who spent 38 years in Washington alongside Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond.
And she answers many questions with responses about helping the state’s businesses thrive — a theme most often trumpeted by Republican leaders, particularly Gov. Nikki Haley, who has made job-creation her administration’s hallmark.
But there is no mistaking Colbert Busch, who will do a series of church visits, luncheons and fundraisers in Beaufort County this weekend and early this week, for a S.C. Republican.
Take, for example, her February endorsement by the S.C. chapter of the AFL-CIO labor union.
“I am enormously grateful for their backing,” Colbert Busch said in a statement. “I am especially pleased that I received this endorsement as a result of the (maritime industry) work I have done helping to create thousands of jobs, and my ability to negotiate to create win-win situations.”
The state’s Republicans have railed against unions. The General Assembly has tried to solidify the state’s right-to-work status through legislation. Meanwhile, Haley was unsuccessfully sued by the AFL-CIO and another union for making anti-union remarks.
Asked Thursday if she’s pro-union, Colbert Busch insisted, “I’m pro-business,” adding that anything that helps both businesses and workers thrive is what she supports.
She cast her education platform similarly, quoting Secretary of Commerce Bobby Hitt, a Haley appointee, on what must be done to improve schools.
“You cannot separate education and industry,” Colbert Busch said, adding she will work to make industry realize a well-educated workforce is essential to its success. Colbert Busch also says she will push to give states the option to use federal dollars to expand some types of school choice, like online and charter schools, and student-loan forgiveness for public-school teachers after 10 years of service.
Fiscal conservatism is a smart political stance in South Carolina, where in 2010 Republicans captured all nine statewide elected offices, further building on their dominance in the capital.
The 1st Congressional District, recently redrawn by a Republican-controlled legislature, is meant to stay in Republican hands. It chose GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney over Democrat Barack Obama by 18 percentage points.
African-Americans, the state’s most loyal Democratic voters, represent only about 20 percent of the district’s voters, meaning Colbert Busch will need support from independent voters and Republicans disenchanted with GOP nominee Mark Sanford.
Colbert Busch has said she favors seeking out fraud and waste in programs like Medicaid.
She supports many planks of the Democratic platform, including gay marriage and abortion rights, but is walking a fine line on federal health care reform — a law that S.C. Republicans are furious about and in overdrive to halt.
Colbert Busch says she supports some aspects of the program, including provisions that prevent Americans from being denied coverage for pre-existing conditions and that allow parents to keep their children on their plans until age 26.
“We want to keep (the new health care system) and address anything that’s wrong. Let’s fix it. This is just one step in making sure that we have health coverage for our children, our families and everyone in the community. Clearly, it’s just a start,” she said, without pointing out parts she disagrees with.
But GOP political strategists say Colbert Busch’s approach is a tried tactic unlikely to be successful.
“All Democrats in the South say they are fiscally conservative and moderate,” said Dave Woodard, a Clemson political scientist who advises Republican candidates. He notes that none who has hummed that tune has gotten elected, but some have gotten booted from office in recent years.
“(Former gubernatorial candidate) Vincent Sheheen, (former U.S. Rep.) John Spratt, (former Gov.) Jim Hodges ... all said that. The problem is the party they support isn’t, and the voters know that,” Woodard said. “That is why voters will not elect someone with a ‘D’ after their name, no matter what the candidate says.”
It might not help that co-hosts for Washington and New York fundraisers she’ll attend this month read like a who’s who of national Democrats. They include House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Taking on Sanford
Colbert Busch and Sanford have known each other for years.
Colbert Busch said that while Sanford was in Congress, she spoke to him on several occasions about trade issues. At the time, Colbert Busch was working as an executive and government liaison for OOCL, an international container and transportation company.
In 2001, Colbert Busch donated $500 to Sanford’s first gubernatorial run.
So far, her campaign has ignored Sanford’s personal transgressions of secretly leaving the state in 2009 for an extramarital affair.
Since capturing the GOP nomination in a runoff Tuesday, Sanford has turned his attention to Colbert Busch, saying voters still don’t know where she stands on the issues, only that she is the sister of Comedy Central political satirist Stephen Colbert.
“Right now, in essence, we’re running against Stephen Colbert. It’s going to be tough running against a comedian who is well-liked and has ties to the Lowcountry, but ultimately, issues define a race,” said Sanford.
Some internal polls suggest Sanford is struggling with female voters and could be vulnerable if he attacks Colbert Busch directly. S.C. politicos anticipate he will work to cast Colbert Busch as a supporter of national Democratic Party policies instead of the bipartisan job-creator title she claims.
Sanford’s comment, which Colbert Busch’s campaign characterized as dismissive, was followed by another Republican comment that some found objectionable, as well. In a New York Times article last week, Beaufort County GOP Chairman Jerry Hallman said Colbert Busch is competitive, in part, because “she’s not a bad looking lady.”
Colbert Busch used Sanford’s comments as a platform for touting her resume.
“I am an independent, hard-working, very successful businesswoman for 25 years,” said Colbert Busch, who has worked in international trade, the maritime industry and is now a director at Clemson University’s Restoration Institute and helped bring the world’s largest wind turbine to the North Charleston facility and wind energy jobs to the area.
“My resume speaks for itself. I know how to balance a budget. I know what profit and loss means. I’m not going to play petty politics.”
It’s a strong selling point for voters like Lotz who say her understanding of the issues, including the proposal to deepen the Charleston Port, are impressive.
“The focus on her brother means people don’t realize this is a smart person with a good understanding of the issues and a good chance of winning,” he said.
Republicans aren’t the only ones who have made some controversial comments in recent days. President Barack Obama, a Democrat, apologized to California Attorney General Kamala Harris last week after calling her “the best-looking attorney general in the country.”
Colbert Busch would not say whether Sanford is a “compromised candidate,” as characterized by his GOP runoff rival, Curtis Bostic.
“We’re going to focus on the people of S.C. District 1. We’re going to stay focused on their message, their concerns, what they want for the district,” she said.