It appears that South Carolina's First Congressional District special election will be the contest everyone was hoping for, with the state's former governor Mark "I left my heart in Argentina" Sanford likely to take on Elizabeth "My brother is on TV" Colbert Busch. So: Who's going to win?
Let's first concede that only Colbert Busch is now guaranteed to be in the general election, slated for May 7. Sanford got a plurality of the votes cast during yesterday's primary, but, failing to get a 50 percent majority of the vote, he faces a run-off on April 2. His opponent in that run-off, the candidate who came in second, isn't yet clear. At National Review Online, John Fund thinks the evangelical-friendly Curtis Bostic, currently in second place, may be able to triumph in the run-off. But Sanford has far less ground to cover to exceed the halfway mark. And, let's be honest: It's much more fun to consider a Coblert Busch / Sanford contest than a Colbert Busch / Bostic one.
At first glance, it would seem that Sanford — as a Republican, as former governor, and as the former congressmember for most of the District — would have a heavy advantage. But not everyone sees it that way. At least one South Carolina Democrats doesn't, as Fund notes:
Pat Caddell, a Democratic strategist who grew up and lives in Charleston, says that kind of moderate appeal makes Colbert Busch a real contender. “If Sanford is the final GOP candidate he could lose a 58 percent Romney district based on his weakness with women voters over the affair he had while governor,” he told me. “Given this is the first special election for Congress in 2013, the positive impact for Obama that would have is huge.”
Well, OK. But what do the numbers say?
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South Carolina's Secretary of State offers voter registration breakdowns by demographic, which provides the data below. (The "white"/"non-white" designation is theirs, not ours.) The state data doesn't include party registration, however, which is a bit of a problem. But a 2012 report from The Center for Voting and Democracy estimates the split at 60 percent Republican, 40 percent Democrat.
There are certainly suggestions that partisan optimism, like that of the Democratic strategist Caddell, is warranted. There are nearly 10 percent more women than men in the district, for example, and, if women are more likely to be skeptical of Sanford, that's good news. It's not clear that the assumption holds true. A late-2012 poll taken after the appointment of then-Rep. Tim Scott to the Senate suggested that Mark Sanford wasn't particularly popular with either gender.
But he was obviously popular enough to win a plurality of votes yesterday.
There's one other strong indicator that Colbert Busch will have a tough fight. Scott, prior to replacing Jim DeMint in the Senate, won reelection to his House seat last November. And he won handily: 62 percent to 36 percent. History suggests that Scott, an African-American, may have picked up more of the "non-white" vote than a white Republican would be likely to, but that's hard to determine.
That race also featured a Libertarian candidate, whose 2.2 percent probably came from Scott's pool of voters. The May general election will have a Green party candidate, who could pull several dozen voters away from Colbert Busch.
One bit of data that isn't instructive is voter turnout from yesterday, which was around 15 percent. Colbert Busch secured a massive 95.87 percent of the Democratic votes — but only 16,455 Democrats bothered to show up for the lopsided race. 53,657 Republicans voted, meaning that Sanford's 36.9 percent yielded more actual votes than Colbert Busch received.
There's really not much reason to assume at this point that Sanford wouldn't win the race. We can assume that polling will come out once the contestants are finalized, which could cloud that prediction. But Colbert Busch's best hope may be that Fund is right, and that Bostic wins the run-off. If he does, Colbert Busch's name recognition may be a more effective weapon than against the well-known Sanford.
A final note, despite famous family members pretty much deciding to stay out of this one: This May wouldn't be the first time a Colbert has faced off with Mark Sanford. In March 2009, Elizabeth's brother Stephen took on the then-governor.
That contest, Colbert won handily.