For Whom Does the Colbert Bump, Bump?

Ben Terris
National Journal

Think Stephen Colbert isn’t a looming presence in his sister Elizabeth Colbert Busch’s campaign for Congress? Well, how did you pronounce her name?

"Elizabeth is exactly the kind of person we need in elected office," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York wrote in an e-mail to her supporters. "She has real accomplishments for middle-class families. And, she pronounces the 't' in Colbert."

For those hoping she gets elected, it’s probably worth making a distinction between Colbert Busch and Colbert. There’s no doubt the famous comedian and television personality will bring plenty of benefits—name recognition, national spotlight, and money—to his sister’s congressional campaign against former Gov. Mark Sanford. But his omnipresence isn’t without a potential downside.

“In the end, he could be a net negative for her,” said Warren Tompkins, a Republican strategist who has been involved in South Carolina campaigns for decades. “She has to define herself as someone other than the comedian’s sister and will have a lot of questions to answer about the money she’ll raise. There will be a lot of Hollywood social-liberal type money, representing very left-leaning causes. It will certainly undercut any efforts to prove that she is a moderate or centrist Democrat.”

This has to be part of the equation for the Colbert Busch campaign. The district—which went up for grabs when former Rep. Tim Scott was appointed to the Senate late last year—has been in Republican hands for more than 30 years. To win, Colbert Busch will need to not only drive up turnout from liberals but also attract GOP-leaning moderates and independents. She's already started, announcing this week she is a fiscal conservative.

The question then is: Does having a loud-mouthed, Bill O’Reilly parody, and iconic liberal personality alongside her confound that message?

On his Comedy Central show Wednesday night, Colbert threw himself right into the middle of the race, officially endorsing his sister and taking a few potshots at Sanford (calling him an "Appalachian hiker with [an] extremely poor sense of direction").

"I'm going to shock some people right now and endorse my sister, Elizabeth Colbert Busch for Congress," he said. "Yes, yes, yes, she's a Democrat. But she's a businesswoman, a job creator, who when raising three children on $14,000 a year, went back to school, built a 20-year career in international trade, and is now leading Mark Sanford in two consecutive polls."

Republicans unaffiliated with the race argue that Stephen Colbert could provide Sanford with an advantage, allowing him to brand Colbert Busch as a lightweight whose only qualification for office is her comedian brother. With such a partisan district, a Democrat would have a better chance at winning by making the election a referendum on Sanford, who famously lied about hiking the Appalachian Trail when in fact he was in Argentina visiting his mistress. Indeed, Colbert Busch is keeping a little distance from her better-known sibling: It’s true that Colbert will host additional fundraisers for his sister, but they will be held in Washington and New York. The Colbert Busch campaign has yet to say whether he will actually come to the district to stump for her.

“The battleground in this election is the movable middle,” said Karen Floyd, former chairwoman of the South Carolina Republican Party. “Stephen Colbert is left of center. He is outside of the realm of the movable middle. Therefore, he does not bring votes. He brings money and national attention. But votes--that’s how the election is won.”

But the Colbert Busch campaign won't necessarily feel the need to make Colbert less visible (for one thing, his picture shows up on her website nearly as many times as hers does). He not only has the ability to bring national excitement to the race; he could also help drive votes from constituents who would otherwise be unlikely to go to the polls for an off-year special election.

“Special elections, without a doubt, benefit a more conservative Republican universe,” said Democratic pollster John Anzalone. “But in the district, you get the College of Charleston there and some other schools in the area. Of course, that group would take a really big push. He might need to be actively involved with the campaign to get out enough of that vote.”

And just because some outside Republican experts say Colbert’s impact on the race could be harmful, doesn’t mean it's true (call it “truthiness?”). If that were the case, then the National Republican Campaign Committee and even Sanford himself would clearly be using Colbert as a boogeyman to scare independents away from voting Democratic. But on Wednesday, Sanford went out of his way to praise Stephen and emphasize that voters are not going to have a chance to vote for him but for his sister.

“At the end of the day, Stephen Colbert is a very popular, well-regarded comedian, but at the end of the day he’s not on the ticket,” Sanford said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe the day after winning his runoff primary.

If it sounds as if Sanford is playing nice with Colbert, it wouldn’t be the worst idea. Why not at least try to stay on the good side of the comedian with a skewering wit and a national audience? But if past is prologue, no number of kind words about the comedian's popularity will keep Sanford from being the butt of at least a few jokes.

“Mark Sanford is favored,” Colbert said in March. “The former governor of the Appalachian Trail.… I will make jokes about it.”