Commentary Magazine


Topic: Elizabeth Colbert Busch

The Democrats’ Sanford Gift Package

With only one day left before the special election in South Carolina’s First Congressional District, the race is still a virtual tossup between former Republican governor Mark Sanford and Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, though polls appear to be trending in the favor of the GOP standard-bearer. While still too close to call, the fact that Sanford appears to have gained ground even after more attention has been diverted to his personal failings demonstrates that it may be impossible for even a candidacy as troubled as that of Sanford to lose a seat in that red a district.

That may seem like good news to Republicans who dread the idea of allowing Nancy Pelosi to get one seat closer to regaining the speakership. But, as the Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza pointed out today, a Sanford victory may well be even better news for the Democrats than a Busch victory. The thinking here is that he’s absolutely correct for three reasons.

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With only one day left before the special election in South Carolina’s First Congressional District, the race is still a virtual tossup between former Republican governor Mark Sanford and Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, though polls appear to be trending in the favor of the GOP standard-bearer. While still too close to call, the fact that Sanford appears to have gained ground even after more attention has been diverted to his personal failings demonstrates that it may be impossible for even a candidacy as troubled as that of Sanford to lose a seat in that red a district.

That may seem like good news to Republicans who dread the idea of allowing Nancy Pelosi to get one seat closer to regaining the speakership. But, as the Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza pointed out today, a Sanford victory may well be even better news for the Democrats than a Busch victory. The thinking here is that he’s absolutely correct for three reasons.

First and perhaps most obviously, Sanford’s regaining of his old seat in the House will mean that he will be going to Washington next week rather than sinking back into the political oblivion that he so richly deserves. Sanford’s return to the Capitol means that the liberal mainstream media would find a new focus for their ongoing campaign to demonize Republicans. Sanford’s Appalachian Trail hijinks and his dismaying behavior toward his children—displayed yet again in a Huffington Post story where the candidate actually called his oldest son in the midst of an interview in order to solicit a testimonial for his parental bona fides—would not only be re-hashed endlessly but would mean that his every move and utterance would be scrutinized in the way that is usually reserved for party leadership figures or presidential candidates. And given Sanford’s penchant for saying and doing stupid things, Democrats can’t be blamed for betting that he will soon provide some new fodder for the late night comedians.

That leads us to the second reason why the GOP shouldn’t be hoping for a Sanford win. A loss tomorrow is probably the only way a national Republican Party that wants nothing more than to never hear his name again can be rid of Sanford. Once re-elected to that seat it will be difficult to dislodge him from it, meaning that he will be a permanent embarrassment rather than just a nightmare they can wake up from. His defeat will mean the much desired end of his political career and allow the party to regain the seat next time around with someone who won’t hurt other Republicans by his mere presence on the House floor and in the studios of the cable news networks.

Democrats who are hoping for a rare House win in a majority-white district in the South should just imagine how they would feel about Anthony Weiner being sent back to Washington by his former constituency. Of course, the New York Democratic Party gerrymandered his old district out of existence, making that horrifying prospect an impossibility.

Third, as Cilizza notes, a Colbert Busch win on Tuesday will set up a difficult re-election campaign next year that will drain precious campaign dollars from other more viable Democratic candidates. Beating Sanford will make Colbert Busch the new idol of the Emily’s List crowd. While it is theoretically possible that she will wow her constituents in the time in the House a special election gains for her, it’s not exactly a secret that it is only Sanford’s presence on the ballot that gives her shot this time. Up against even a minimally acceptable Republican, no Democrat has much of a chance to win there even with a massive infusion of national contributions or celebrity endorsements. A win for her will not only deprive them of having Sanford to beat up and to portray as a second Todd Akin in order to destroy the GOP brand, it will commit them to a fight in 2014 they probably can’t win.

Sanford’s possible victory should refocus Republicans on the task of finding electable candidates for federal office. While bad candidates can be establishment figures as easily as Tea Partiers, the party has to ponder what it can do to avoid being saddled with people like Akin or Sanford who make it hard on everyone who identifies with the GOP. The sooner it can dispose of such cringe-inducing politicians the better off all Republicans will be.

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Sanford’s a Different Kind of Bad Candidate

One of the great clichés of literature is Leo Tolstoy’s assertion in Anna Karenina that all happy families are alike but all unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way. The same thing could be said of political candidates. All good candidates, be they conservatives or liberals, Republicans or Democrats, have many of the same personal qualities that make for effective retail politics in terms of personal appeal and even intelligence (though that appears at times to be optional rather than a requirement). But bad candidates come in all shapes and sizes.

That is a lesson that the Republican Party has learned to its regret in the last couple of election cycles and may well again in South Carolina this spring. While the months since the Democrats’ victory last November have been filled with non-stop recriminations from Republicans about the quality of their candidates as well as advice from liberals to junk conservative ideology, the idea that the Tea Party is the GOP’s main albatross is one that conservatives have stiffly and rightly resisted. That point has been reinforced by what happened last night in the Palmetto State. The decision of Republican primary voters to nominate former governor Mark Sanford to run in the special election to fill the vacancy in his old congressional district has sent a shiver down the spines of GOP operatives as they rightly fear he will lose a seat that their party shouldn’t even have to worry about.

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One of the great clichés of literature is Leo Tolstoy’s assertion in Anna Karenina that all happy families are alike but all unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way. The same thing could be said of political candidates. All good candidates, be they conservatives or liberals, Republicans or Democrats, have many of the same personal qualities that make for effective retail politics in terms of personal appeal and even intelligence (though that appears at times to be optional rather than a requirement). But bad candidates come in all shapes and sizes.

That is a lesson that the Republican Party has learned to its regret in the last couple of election cycles and may well again in South Carolina this spring. While the months since the Democrats’ victory last November have been filled with non-stop recriminations from Republicans about the quality of their candidates as well as advice from liberals to junk conservative ideology, the idea that the Tea Party is the GOP’s main albatross is one that conservatives have stiffly and rightly resisted. That point has been reinforced by what happened last night in the Palmetto State. The decision of Republican primary voters to nominate former governor Mark Sanford to run in the special election to fill the vacancy in his old congressional district has sent a shiver down the spines of GOP operatives as they rightly fear he will lose a seat that their party shouldn’t even have to worry about.

Sanford is running on a platform of personal redemption, in which his infamous mythical hike on the Appalachian Trail while actually visiting his mistress in Argentina has actually become a rationale for forgiving souls to return him to Congress rather than a reason to vote against him. Given the overwhelming advantage that Republicans hold in the district as well as the forgiving nature of the American people, it may work. One could certainly argue that Democrats who still venerate Bill Clinton as a great president are in no position to cast stones at Sanford and that his opponent Elizabeth Colbert Busch will not be aided by a moralistic and hypocritical critique of him.

But it is just as likely that enough Republicans will be disgusted by the spectacle of Sanford’s return to electoral politics after personal disgrace that it will enable Busch to win a district that Mitt Romney carried by 18 percentage points over Barack Obama. If so, this will be one Republican defeat that wiseacres won’t be able to blame on the Tea Party, failed outreach to Hispanics or any of the other valid concerns that helped cost it control of the Senate and the White House.

The lesson here is that as unique as this story may be, it’s important to realize that the outcome of every political race in the country is the product of a host of factors that often have nothing to do with national trends or issues. It is only after the fact that pundits are able to impose a unifying narrative on such contests that allow them to fit it into an overriding concept that they claim explains everything.

While such narratives are not always misleading—there really were enough Tea Party outliers like Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle to constitute a trend that explained why the GOP has lost winnable seats—they often encompass races that really have more to do with personal or local factors than subjects that provide the grist for condescending New York Times editorials about the problems of Republicans.

If Republicans are to do better in 2014 it will require a convergence of a number of factors that include some of the recommendations provided by our Peter Wehner and Michael Gerson in their article in the March issue of COMMENTARY. But the main thing they’ll need is a collection of viable candidates. The puzzling embrace of the morally burdened Sanford by some of his former constituents could provide an object lesson in just how difficult it is for a national party to field a winning slate across the nation.

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