CHARLESTON, S.C. – Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch was no pushover in her first-ever political debate, leaving Republican Mark Sanford’s personal baggage to weigh him down just eight days before the May 7 special election.
The novice candidate for Congress not only held her own against the former governor and congressman, she went on the offensive. “You didn’t tell the truth,” she said, referring to his alleged promise to support dredging the Port of Charleston but perhaps also to his marital affair and violations of state ethics laws.
Her spirited performance thwarted Sanford’s efforts to make the race in a heavily Republican district about her ties to the Democratic Party and labor unions, allowing voters to linger on his transgressions -- most notably, his disappearance from the capitol for several days to visit his girlfriend in Argentina.
“I want to be very clear Mark. Nobody tells me what to do,” Colbert Busch said, forgoing courtesy titles in the signature moment of the debate. “I am a fiscal conservative, independent, tough businesswoman.”
The race could offer lessons to other scandal-plagued politicians, like former Rep. Anthony Weiner, who is weighing a mayoral bid in New York City two years after revelations that he circulated lewd photos of himself on-line. In one particularly awkward moment for Sanford, he sought to compare himself to former President Clinton, whose legacy is much broader than his infidelity in the Oval Office.
In contrast, Colbert Busch benefited from a clean slate – many voters know her only as the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert -- and a friendly audience. Her supporters at The Citadel’s alumni center booed every time Sanford linked her to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The reaction would have been picked up only by the relatively small audience watching the debate on C-SPAN or on-line, but it allowed Colbert Busch to gain momentum in the debate hall.
For voters more interested in policy, the debate revealed some key distinctions. Colbert Busch said she backs allowing illegal immigrants to earn citizenship, expanding background checks on gun buyers and legalizing gay marriage; Sanford does not. “You have to begin with enforcement first before you begin any conversation on amnesty,” he said.
On other issues, Colbert Busch distanced herself from her party. Running in a district that President Obama lost by 18 percentage points, Colbert Busch sought to persuade voters she's more loyal to the Chamber of Commerce. “Obamacare is extremely problematic,” she said. She also said she disagreed with the National Labor Relations Board‘s past opposition to Boeing’s new aircraft plant in Charleston. “This is a right to work state and they had no business telling a company where they could locate,” she said.
Sanford said his opponent was being hypocritical since she has raised money from labor unions and Democrats in Congress who backed the health care law. “It’s not believable to me that someone gives you a million dollars and expects nothing in return,” Sanford said, referring to donations from the Democratic Party’s congressional arm and a Democratic super PAC.
It may be difficult to draw conclusions from a special election, but the Democratic Party is eager to claim bragging rights. A victory by Colbert Busch would allow Democrats to drive a stake in enemy turf and elevate a female candidate as the party continues to try to exploit the gender gap. The election was triggered when Republican Tim Scott was appointed to the U.S. Senate to fill the seat left by Jim DeMint's early retirement.
For the GOP, a win would offer a chance to gloat about President Obama’s unpopularity in the South, though some Republicans would rather Sanford stayed out of sight as the party tries to rebrand itself as more friendly to women, minorities and young voters. In one of the only signs of support from the Republican establishment, Gov. Nikki Haley is participating in a fundraiser for her successor. Sanford is also expected to receive a rare endorsement Tuesday from Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who is positioning himself for the 2016 presidential race.
The debate, sponsored by the Patch news service and the South Carolina Radio Network, was not aired any local television stations. Turnout is expected to be low, making it difficult to predict the outcome, but the heavy Republican makeup of the district and Sanford’s experience gives him an advantage. Not counting primary elections and runoffs, Sanford has been on the ballot five times in South Carolina. His failure to make her look like a lightweight in their one and only matchup was a missed opportunity.
“If you have a bad performance in this debate, everybody‘s watching and there’s no do-overs,” said Carol Fowler, former chairwoman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. “She’s brand new at this. He very much had the advantage in this debate.”
Sanford looked like he was on the verge of a political comeback after emerging from a crowded Republican primary. But his campaign began unraveling after his ex-wife accused him of trespassing at their home in violation of their divorce settlement. His explanation changed, and he resorted to taking out a defensive, full-page newspaper ad that included his cell phone number. (Pesky Democrats obliged.)
“Focusing on national spending works for him, but as the focus turns to his personal life, it’s a much greater challenge,” said Charleston-based Republican strategist Jim Dyke, who is not involved in the race. “Then again, politicians engaging in infidelity and then deciding to run for office again are barely news.”
Dyke and other prominent Republicans in the state aren't counting Sanford out. He's drawn attention for his deliberately makeshift campaign signs spray-painted on plywood and for pitting himself in a mock debate against a life-size cardboard cutout of Pelosi. “Sometimes it’s the irritating antics that are absolute genius,” said Karen Floyd, a former chairwoman of the South Carolina Republican Party. “It’s provocative and people need to be energized right now.”
Several hours before the debate, Sanford addressed a group of about 30 seniors at a retirement community in Charleston. Without a tie or jacket, Sanford seemed at ease mingling with the residents over glazed donuts and cranberry juice, and several were forgiving. “He wants a second chance, and I think he deserves it,” said 60-year-old Banks Smith. “I don’t like what he did but that doesn’t have anything to do with how he will govern the country,” said 95-year-old Julie Bishop.
An exception was 71-year-old Gloria Day. “Sanford has some character issues that concern me,” she said. “I’m not going to get specific but everyone knows what they are. He’s embarrassed South Carolina enough.”
Naomi Radcliff , a 65-year-old retired accountant, seemed to speak for the group when she said, "We appreciate you putting in the effort and taking the heat that you had to take. Some of it was justified and some of it wasn’t."
“Yes ma’am,” Sanford replied.