Depending on whom you ask, the outcome of the 1st District election could have national ramifications or represent the end of a celebrity-fueled soap opera.
On one side are those who say Tuesday’s results will reverberate across the political landscape, bolstering Democratic hopes for regaining a House majority in 2014.
Others disagree, saying this isn’t a referendum on President Barack Obama or any national issue but a local contest that has attracted a national spotlight mostly because of the star power of its main players.
One thing most can agree on is that Republican former Gov. Mark Sanford and Democratic businesswoman Elizabeth Colbert Busch, sister of comedian Stephen Colbert, have waged a lively, competitive race in the GOP-leaning district.
The winner of the special election will serve the remaining year and a half of Tim Scott’s congressional term. Scott gave up his House seat to finish out the U.S. Senate term of Jim DeMint, who resigned to run the Heritage Foundation.
Sanford, whose campaign has been made more challenging by more than $600,000 in attack ads funded by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House Majority PAC and other groups, has said Tuesday’s results will be felt beyond the state line. Sanford picked up an endorsement from Tea Party Express, a national PAC, on Saturday.
At times, Sanford has sounded as if he were running against House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi more than Colbert Busch.
“Democrats are really keying in on this race, and the reason they put $1 million into this race is because it has national significance for them,” said Sanford, who defeated 15 other Republicans in the party’s primary April 2. “This is the first election since the president was re-elected. It’s the only special election taking place in the United States right now.”
If Democrats win here, Sanford said, they can approach their donors and say, “Look, if we won in the 1st Congressional District of South Carolina, we can win in the other 15 seats requisite to taking back the House.”
Waring Howe, a Charleston lawyer and former Democratic National Committee member, agreed with the notion that Tuesday’s outcome would give Democrats new hope beyond South Carolina.
“It allows an opportunity to spin easily that we can take out Republicans in traditional Republican areas with the right candidate, with funding and with the right dynamics,” he said.
Colbert Busch said she hasn’t thought about how the outcome Tuesday might shape the larger political landscape. “I’ve got my eye so focused on May 7,” she said. Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said the race won’t have national importance.
“A Sanford win would simply reflect the massively GOP nature of the district,” he said. The district went for Republican Mitt Romney over Obama in last fall’s presidential election by a 58 percent to 40 percent margin.
“Ms. Colbert Busch is very likely to be a very short-term member of Congress, if elected,” Sabato said, “assuming 1st District Republicans choose more wisely next time.”
Sanford acknowledged that his personal situation — the national headlines he made as governor for leaving the country to visit his girlfriend while his staff said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail — is part of the story. He also was criticized after it was revealed April 16 that his ex-wife Jenny had accused him of trespassing at her Sullivan’s Island house.
“But I think, at the end of the day, if you look at the overall numbers in the district, I think you’d still look at it and say it’s a test case,” he said.
Citadel political science professor Scott Buchanan has researched special elections and concluded that Tuesday’s outcome won’t reverberate nationally — and not just because of the uniqueness of the candidates.
“We basically found special elections are their own special creatures,” he said. “They revolve around local issues, and you can’t make any interpretation into national trends or even statewide trends.”
Kyle Kondik, an editor for Sabato’s Crystal Ball newsletter, said Sanford and Colbert Busch are unique, and he won’t predict much regarding next year.
After all, he said, “what future race will look like this?”