Tuesday, May 7, 2013

What Does Sanford's Victory Mean?

Be honest. You aren't really surprised by this, are you?

Because, if you are, you don't know much about American history and politics.

Mark Sanford, the Republican former governor of South Carolina who resigned nearly four years ago when his extramarital affair with an Argentinian woman was revealed, apparently has won the special election to fill the House vacancy that was created when Rep. Tim Scott was selected to replace retiring Sen. Jim DeMint.

When Sanford resigned in 2009, most political experts thought his political career was over. Certainly, his marriage was over.

And recent polls suggested that Sanford's comeback race with Elizabeth Colbert Busch (the sister of Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert) was a dead heat.

Democrats face an uphill battle to gain a majority in the House, as I observed the other day, and many were tantalized by the prospect of winning the open district in South Carolina. It has been in Republican hands since 1981 (including the years when Sanford represented the district prior to being elected governor).

Such a victory wouldn't have assured Democrats that they would win control of the House in next year's midterms, but it would have reduced the number of seats they need to win to achieve that goal — and it would have given the Democrats a shot of confidence when worries about the implementation of Obamacare and hearings on Benghazi are bringing that confidence level down, especially among Democrats who must face the voters next year.

But it wasn't to be.

Not only didn't Colbert Busch win, it wasn't even as close as polls had suggested. With nearly all the votes counted, Sanford has a comfortable 54%–45% lead.

If you're a Democrat and you want to take some kind of victory from this, Colbert Busch did get a higher share of the vote than anyone who has challenged Sanford in the First District in the past.

It's no disgrace for a Democrat to lose in South Carolina. Most of them do. This isn't the same thing as when Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in dark–blue Massachusetts. That was a clear sign of trouble ahead for Democrats in the 2010 midterms.

This loss is hardly a harbinger of things to come. If anything, though, it supports what I wrote the other day. Barring any unexpected developments, I think 2014 will be a status quo election in which any gain for either party will be small.

So what does this special election mean — if anything?

I'm inclined to think it doesn't mean nearly as much as some pundits are making it out to mean.

Remember, we're talking about South Carolina here — not North Carolina, the state that unexpectedly voted narrowly for Barack Obama in 2008.

South Carolina is a Republican state. It has voted for Republican nominees for president in nine consecutive elections — and in 12 of the last 13. Eight of the nine members of the state's congressional delegation are Republicans.

Since 1987, only one Democrat has been elected to a single four–year term as governor — and he lost his bid for a second term to none other than Sanford.

OK, Sanford has some personal issues stemming from his extramarital relationship (for the record, his mistress is now his fiancee). He addressed those issues openly and candidly early in the campaign and focused on other subjects later in the race.

You may not like what he had to say, and, if you are registered to vote in South Carolina's First District, you had the opportunity today to vote against him on the basis of his personal life — or for any other reason. Apparently, not many did. At least, as far as Democrats are concerned, not enough did.

Colbert Busch and the Democrats continued to try to make an issue of Sanford's relationship. But it just wasn't compelling enough for voters to turn their backs on more than three decades of electoral history — not for a Democrat with no political experience at all.

If Democrats want something to worry about, it's this.

The national Republican Party abandoned Sanford in this campaign. He was on his own. Meanwhile, Colbert Busch had the active support of the national Democrat Party — as well as other prominent organizations — and still fell short by about 13,000 votes (out of about 142,000 votes cast). Sanford also carried every county in the district.

If the Democrats were ever going to pull off an upset in the First District, this was the time for it. Such an opportunity is not likely to come again any time soon.

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