South Carolina House Race Defined by People Who Aren't Running

Out-of-staters loom large over the First Congressional District campaign

May 6, 2013, 4:34 PM

May 7, 2013 — -- What do Comedy Central talk show host Stephen Colbert; Jenny Sanford, the spurned ex-wife of former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, and Maria Belen Chapur, the Argentinian woman Sanford left her for have in common?

None of them are running to represent South Carolina's First Congressional District in the House of Representatives, but any of them could tip the scales as voters decide who does.

In Charleston today, voters will turn out for the special election between the comedian's sister, Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, and the former governor whose career was tarnished by the infamous "Appalachian Trail" epside in 2009, when he left the state to meet with his mistress in Argentina, misleading staffers and the public about where he was.

After months of back-and-forth campaigning and a contentious debate last week, the voters will finally weigh in on Sanford's long and, at times, arduous comeback journey -- from the nation's top political pariah to a potential return to Congress. If he wins today, Sanford will retake the House seat he held in the 1990s before becoming governor.

As the campaign has played out, Colbert Busch's famous brother has mostly stayed away.

The Comedy Central star held two fundraisers last month for his sister, one in New York and another in Washington, D.C., but he hasn't campaigned for her in South Carolina's First House District, and there is no indication he will do so before polls close today.

Perhaps it's by design. Colbert Busch, a Democrat, stands a chance of winning in a GOP stronghold where her brother's parody of conservatism might not play as well as her centrist-businesswoman campaign rhetoric on the trail.

Those fundraisers, and Colbert's star status, surely helped. While the Colbert Busch campaign did not respond to a question about how much money his events pulled in, Colbert Busch had raised more money than Sanford as of their last financial disclosure on April 17, $1.18 million to Sanford's $787,000.

The comedian's absence points to a strange truth about the race: It's been defined, in large part, by people other than the candidates, some of whom aren't even there.

In mid-April, the race took a weird twist with the revelation of a legal dispute between Sanford and his ex-wife, Jenny, who accused him of trespassing at her house on Super Bowl Sunday. Win or lose, Sanford will have to appear in court on Wednesday to explain his presence at the house to a judge.

Those accusations prompted the National Republican Congressional Committee to disown Sanford. For a few weeks, Jenny Sanford loomed as large in the First District campaign as either of the candidates.

So, briefly, did Sanford's fiance, Maria Belen Chapur. It was Chapur whom Sanford visited in Argentina on his fateful trip in 2009. Chapur attended Sanford's primary victory party on April 2, standing behind him as he delivered his speech. Jenny Sanford would later tell The Washington Post that it was the first time one of the Sanfords' sons had met Chapur.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has hovered over the race, too. At a campaign event, Sanford staged a mock debate with a cardboard cutout of the House minority leader, and during his debate with Colbert Busch at the Citadel on April 29, Sanford repeatedly sought to tie his opponent to Pelosi. Nearly every time he mentioned the minority leader's name, Colbert Busch's supporters booed and groaned.

Sanford has made Pelosi and unions major themes in his campaign, seeking to highlight the support from national Democratic groups that Colbert Busch enjoys. In mentioning Pelosi as often as he has, Sanford has given the race a retro feel, reminiscent of the 2010 Republican House campaigns that made Pelosi and the Democratic House majority's agenda a cornerstone of their successful efforts to retake the lower chamber.

"Their goal is clear -- give Pelosi another vote for the Speakership, and in the process help President Obama cement his legacy," Sanford wrote in an email to supporters Monday night, asking them to vote on Tuesday.

Sanford has a point. Outside groups have reported spending more than $1.1 million on the race, nearly all of it to attack him.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has reported spending nearly $460,000 attacking Sanford in the district, and House Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC that focuses on House races, has reported spending more than $425,000 to hit him. VoteVets has added another $48,000.

While his opponent has enjoyed all that outside backing, Sanford himself has gone without. Without any help from the NRCC, Sanford's largest financial supporter, by far, is the conservative group Independent Women's Voices, which has spent $160,000 on TV ads attacking Colbert Busch. Sanford is backed by FreedomWorks, the National Right to Life Committee, and the South Forward PAC, but none have spent more than $16,000 on the race.

Colbert Busch, for her part, has resisted the notion that she's beholden to those outside backers. She has campaigned as an independnent-minded, centrist businesswoman unafraid to buck the national party.

"No one tells me what to do except the people of the First District," she told Sanford during their debate.

Not all outside forces at play have had significant effect on the race. Only one candidate enjoys the sarcastic backing of porn king Larry Flynt, but it's difficult to tell whether that endorsement -- or any other -- has had much impact.

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