Mark Sanford, the former Republican governor of South Carolina who turned “hiking the Appalachian Trail” into an Urban Dictionary entry (discretion advised), is one step closer to completing a surprising political comeback.
Last night, Sanford won the Republican primary in South Carolina’s First Congressional District with 37 percent of the vote. That wasn’t enough to clear the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff on April 2, but it makes him the favorite to secure his party’s nomination and face off in May against the Democratic nominee—Elizabeth Colbert Busch, sister of Stephen Colbert. While most Republican primary voters chose someone other than Sanford, the former governor only needs to pick off 26 percent of the voters who selected someone other than himself or Curtis Bostic, last night’s second place finisher.
Bostic, a former Charleston County councilman, finished with just 13 percent of the vote after a grassroots effort to mobilize the district’s social conservatives. And while you would think a social conservative would be best suited to beating Sanford, given his adulterous past, South Carolina’s First actually isn’t a great place to run a populist, socially conservative campaign. The South Carolina lowlands have always been establishment-friendly: In recent presidential primaries, the district voted for McCain and Romney, not Santorum or Huckabee. This bodes well for Sanford, as does the influx of Northerners to resort communities like Hilton Head.
If Sanford wins the party’s nomination, he would also fight on friendly terrain in a general election against Colbert Busch. South Carolina’s First voted for Romney by 18 points, 58 to 40. Bad news for Colbert Busch: There isn’t a single Democrat in Congress representing a deep southern district that voted for Romney by such a wide margin.
Still, don’t write her off yet: With unusual turnout and few polls, special congressional elections are tough to predict. Who knows how conservative South Carolinians will react when forced to choose between a disgraced former governor and Colbert? Are the 63 percent of Republican primary voters who selected someone other than Sanford really willing to vote for a candidate who cheated on his wife? In a special election, how many Republicans will just stay home?
The challenges of predicting a special congressional election were, in fact, on ample display in yesterday’s primary. Politico said that the primary would be "all about turnout." Citing a Sanford advisor, the article argued that Bostic could take second in a low turnout election--around 25,000 to 32,000 voters. A richer candidate, like Chip Limehouse, would "likely" finish second with high turnout—in excess of 40,000 voters—because he had spent heavily on ads.
The "analysis" was completely wrong. More than 50,000 people voted, and Bostic still finished second while Limehouse finished seventh.