South Carolina Special Election Won’t Tell Much About 2014

Charlie Cook
May 6, 2013

Here’s a prediction: If not on Tuesday night, then certainly by Wednesday and maybe even through Thursday or beyond, one party will be crowing that its victory in the special election for now-Sen. Tim Scott’s former seat in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District is a sign that it is doing great and will have a successful 2014 midterm election. The other party will be downplaying the national significance of the special election, declaring that the results have nothing whatsoever to do with what happens next year.

Mark me down as agreeing with the latter. The voting in South Carolina means nothing other than which side can lay claim to that seat for the rest of this year and next.

Special elections are almost always fairly unique and unconnected to the direction of American politics. Occasionally, there is one in a swing district that might be worth paying attention to: one side losing a seat that it probably should have won, for example, or a race where the party’s candidate was not unusually weak, or the opponent not unusually strong, or where voters were just sending a statement.

If former Gov. Mark Sanford wins, all that outside observers should conclude is that the district—which gave Mitt Romney an 18-point victory over President Obama (58 to 40 percent) and where Sen. John McCain beat Obama in 2008 by 13 points (56 to 43 percent)—voted for a Republican yet again, even one as politically disfigured as Sanford. South Carolina’s 1st District has a Cook Political Report Partisan Voter Index score of R+11, meaning that in the most recent two presidential elections the district voted 11 points more Republican than the country as a whole. It’s the 118th most Republican district in the country. Only three Democrats in the House have a district more Republican than this one: Jim Matheson in Utah’s 4th District (with a PVI of +16), Nick Rahall in West Virginia’s 3rd (PVI +14), and Mike McIntyre in North Carolina’s 7th (PVI +12).

Conversely, if Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch prevails, all it tells us is that Sanford was so badly damaged that a Democrat could beat him.

Simply put, no two congressional special elections are exactly alike, but this is unlike any ever held before. It doesn’t say anything about anything other than the degree of Sanford’s damage and the degree of Republican voting in the district.

Private polling is consistently within the margin of error. Generally we are seeing the polls side with Colbert Busch, who is running ever so slightly ahead of Sanford. But given the relatively low turnout in most special elections, it’s pretty much an even-money race. If Sanford wins by any kind of margin, it means that Republican voters simply held their noses and voted for him anyway. If Colbert Busch wins, it most likely means that a lot of Republicans chose to stay home rather than vote for either a candidate whom they thoroughly disapprove of or one with whom they thoroughly disagree.

If Sanford wins, he should immediately begin preparing for a 2014 primary. If Colbert Busch wins, I would advise her to either sleep in her office and shower in the House gym or rent an apartment with a lease that only goes through December 2013; the chances of her surviving aren’t very good. If she wins, she should also talk immediately with Messrs. Matheson, McIntyre, and Rahall about how they manage to hang onto districts so thoroughly Republican.

Next year’s midterm election is more likely to be determined by which of these two story lines prevail: Republicans continue to be unable to fix their problems with minority, women, young, and moderate voters—and with nominating the wrong or weak candidates. Or, as the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) is more fully implemented, voters who had been supportive or ambivalent about the ACA before will start changing their minds, and the issue becomes a bigger drag on Democrats than previously predicted. Democrats who dismiss this as an old and already-litigated issue should ask around—maybe among their friends and family members or among the human-resources folks where they work—to get a sense of quotes people have received for next year’s health insurance premiums before being so sure that this is a settled issue. Many of the increases are eye-popping. Legitimate questions could be raised as to whether this can be fairly blamed on the ACA; whether health insurance companies have no choice but to raise rates in anticipation of full implementation; or whether the companies are engaging in nefarious behavior. It’s a better bet that if these price hikes truly become widespread, the ACA will be blamed. Democrats ought to batten down the hatches once again.

All of this is entirely speculative; it won’t be until this fall or winter that we can even start to be more certain of what the contours of 2014 will look like. Just don’t draw a conclusion based on South Carolina’s 1st District results.