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South Carolina Special Election Centers on Jobs, Economy

by Carl Wicklander, published


With the appointment of Tim Scott to the US Senate by Governor Nikki Haley, the first congressional district Scott was serving became an open seat and a South Carolina special election was needed.

Headlined by former governor Mark Sanford, the Republican field was crowded. Although Sanford's tenure as governor was known nationally for an extramarital affair, he dominated the primary field with nearly 40 percent of the vote. His political comeback took another step when he defeated former Charleston County Councilman Curtis Bostic, 61-39, in the Republican primary run-off. Sanford faces Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch in the May 7 special election.

Several factors play into Sanford's favor. From 1995-2001, Sanford represented the first district in Washington D.C, a district won by a Republican in every election since 1980.

As a former governor, Sanford has universal name recognition and despite his affair, by the time he left office in 2011, Sanford had regained approval ratings over 50 percent.

For an idea of the Republican composition of the district, the raw vote totals in each stage of this election could be compared.

Colbert Busch won the Democratic primary against essentially token opposition with 15,802 votes. Sanford earned 19,854 in a field with over a dozen other competitors.

As is customary, the turn-out was much lower in the run-off. However, even then the Republican turn-out was higher (18,794) than it had been for the Democrats' primary two weeks earlier (16,484).

Colbert Busch, a businesswoman, has never before run for office. On leave from Clemson University, she won the Democratic primary with over 95 percent. The recipient of the remaining four percent, perennial candidate Ben Frasier, endorsed Sanford this week.

In his endorsement, Frasier said:

"I am a Democrat, but a conservative one, and I am supporting Mark because I don't think Elizabeth represents the conservative values of this district. . . . I am crossing party lines to make this endorsement because with all due respect to Elizabeth, she is just too beholden to the political left to represent the Lowcountry effectively."

Perhaps in accordance with that, the Sunlight Foundation, an organization dedicated to government transparency, reported that Colbert Busch deleted more than 500 tweets from her Twitter account in the last week.

According to the Foundation, the deleted tweets have ranged from thanking specific supporters to blurbs about the candidate's positions. One particular deleted tweet read, "Both pro choice and in favor of marriage equality."

Disappointed supporters of Bostic claimed that Sanford's victory indicated the waning influence of social conservative voters in the GOP.

According to the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza, the first district is not dominated by social conservatives in the way other South Carolina districts are. Rather, it is "filled with Republicans who care about fiscal issues but recoil at the harder-edged approach on social issues. Sanford fit that sort of Republican voter like a glove."

Like Sanford, Colbert Busch is divorced, although not as high-profile. According to Scott Buchanan, a political science professor at The Citadel, the district has been redrawn so that rural Horry and Georgetown counties were excluded and Charleston and Beaufort counties dominated.

Buchanan describes the new first district as one where people are "more willing to give you a pass on the social issues," making it unlikely the election will be a referendum on marriage.

Following through on this knowledge of the district, both Colbert Busch and Sanford are striking campaign messages on the economy. Actively recalling her past as a businesswoman in her ads, Colbert Busch has attempted to campaign on a positive tone:

"I'm not going to talk about the jobs that we've lost. I know what it takes to create new jobs."

Sanford is touting his conservative record in his campaign ads. One features testimonials from various South Carolinians on his fiscal conservatism and independence. Another has the governor rehashing his accomplishments as a responsible steward of taxpayer money in both Columbia and Washington.

It is approximately one month until the special election is held on May 7. Early polls show Colbert Busch with a slim lead, but within the margin of error.

However, in most special elections, voter turn-out is low enough to make most conventional wisdom irrelevant. Yet, as Elizabeth Colbert Busch and Mark Sanford are demonstrating, the first district voter is likely listening more to what each has to say on the economy and jobs and less on their views on social issues.

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