The one-month sprint to the finish line begins today for Mark Sanford and Elizabeth Colbert Busch.
And there’s plenty to talk about until the former governor with the messy personal life and the businesswoman with the famous comedian brother face off at the ballot box.
Voters in the 1st District will decide May 7 whether they want Sanford or Colbert Busch to represent them in the U.S. House of Representatives. Green Party candidate Eugene Platt also is on the ballot.
In the meantime, here are six things to watch as the race unfolds:
Which issues will matter?
Sanford and Colbert Busch have focused on different themes in their campaigns.
Colbert Busch has emphasized creating jobs, while Sanford has emphasized reducing spending and debt.
The candidates also want to highlight other issues.
Sanford wants to talk about the National Labor Relations Board, which came under broad fire in South Carolina for questioning Boeing’s expansion in North Charleston. Unions are a core constituency of Democrats, and Colbert Busch’s website doesn’t mention the word.
Sanford also has been highly critical of the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s national health care plan, while Colbert Busch’s position is more nuanced, saying it has “good and bad provisions.”
Colbert Busch’s platform focuses prominently on public education, urging more help for early learning, low-performing schools, and getting great teachers in each classroom.
Sanford’s website barely mentions education, except to note that he favors market-based education reform and school choice.
And it remains to be seen to what extent Sanford’s 2009 downfall as governor is put before voters.
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said Sanford’s primary opponents never scorched him by going harshly negative. Will that change?
Who’s more motivated?
Special elections often have lower turnout; only a sliver of the electorate voted in the recent primaries and the GOP runoff.
The onus is on the candidates to persuade voters to do something they normally don’t do in the spring — get out and vote.
The district leans Republican even more than South Carolina as a whole, as its voters went for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney by almost a 3-2 ratio last November.
Sabato said if Colbert Busch wins, she would be unique — a Democrat taking one of the nation’s most Republican-leaning seats.
“But let’s remember, Sanford is controversial, and special elections can have unusual patterns of turnout,” he said. “The advantage is Sanford’s, but not so much that it’s a total slam dunk.”
The Democrats have an underdog’s motivation — they haven’t held the 1st District seat since Mendel Davis left office in 1981 — and they currently have only one of South Carolina’s seven congressional seats.
The women’s vote
South Carolina ranks near the bottom in terms of female officeholders, but relatively few women run. When they do, though, they have a pretty good shot at winning.
Women also make up almost 55 percent of the registered voters in the 1st District, which includes parts of Beaufort, Berkeley, Charleston, Colleton and Dorchester counties.
That could help Colbert Busch, who is seeking to become South Carolina’s first female congresswoman since Liz Patterson lost her re-election bid in the 4th District in 1992.
Also, female voters may be less likely to forgive Sanford for leaving the state in 2009 to meet his mistress in Argentina.
A recent survey by Public Policy Polling, regarded as Democratic-leaning pollsters, found Colbert Busch winning in a hypothetical match-up with Sanford by a 49 percent to 43 percent margin among female voters. Among male voters, Sanford had a 47 percent to 45 percent edge.
When will they meet?
It’s unclear how many times the candidates will appear face-to-face.
The nonprofit AARP announced that it is trying to arrange a televised forum on April 17, but both campaigns are working out the details.
Other groups also hope to host a forum or debate of their own, but nothing has been announced. Stay tuned.
Who backs whom?
Colbert Busch won her Democratic primary by a landslide with enthusiastic support from some of South Carolina’s most prominent Democrats, including U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn and Charleston Mayor Joe Riley.
Since Sanford’s primary win, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley released a statement saying, “Lowcountry taxpayers deserve a Congressman who will look out for their bottom line on key issues like debt reduction, Obamacare, and the National Labor Relations Board, and Mark Sanford can be counted on to do that.”
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham also plans to hold an event for Sanford in Washington.
Meanwhile, Colbert Busch is expected to benefit from fundraisers hosted by her brother, Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” Neither side is expected to be hurting for cash.
Most congressional races stir little interest in the national media, but Sanford’s quest for redemption and Colbert Busch’s well-known brother have thrust this race into a national spotlight.
The day after his primary win, Sanford went on national television twice, and Colbert Busch also has received national coverage.
Which candidate, if either, will benefit from the brighter glare, and will it be a distraction as they seek to connect with Lowcountry voters?
“This added attention is more likely to increase turnout than to turn the contest one way or another,” Sabato said.