Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Sanford v. Colbert Busch: the first domino refuses to fall

There was hope, real and serious hope, about the special election for South Carolina's first congressional district. It pitted deeply flawed--as a human being--former South Carolina governor (and former holder of this very seat) Mark Sanford (R) against relative unknown Elizabeth Colbert Busch (D). Sanford, we may recall, made huge headlines in June of 2009 when--while Governor of South Carolina--he "disappeared" for about a week; no one seemed to know where he was, including his security detail. In the end, he turned out to be in Argentina in the company of a woman who was not his wife (a woman he is now engaged to, for what its worth).

His actions--which aside from infidelity, also included openly lying about his whereabouts and using state funds to finance his adulterous trysts--led the State House to threaten impeachment and to ultimately censure Sanford. He served out the remainder of his term quite ignobly, as his wife filed and completed divorce proceedings and Sanford became a virtual pariah in state, local, and national politics.

In some ways, Sanford is very much a Clinton-esque figure, for despite his adulterous ways, many still admired his governing style; the Cato Institute even ranked him as one of the top governors in the nation in 2010, with regard to fiscal policy. Sanford was also an outspoken and leading critic of the Obama Stimulus Bill, refusing to accept federal dollars unless the State would match the monies and use them to pay down the State's debt. Prior to the events detailed above in 2009, Sanford was very, very popular. He won his first gubernatorial election by six points in 2002 and his second by over ten points in 2006. He was--at the time--a darling of the national Republican party and the conservative movement within the same, having taken control of the RGA (Republican Governors Association) in November of 2008. Many expected him to be a serious contender for the Presidential nomination in 2012 and some thought he might have even been the right pick as McCain's running mate in 2008.

This special election represented an attempt at rebirth on the part of Sanford, but he received almost no help from the RNC or from most national figures on the right, particularly after his ex-wife files a complaint against him for trespassing in February of this year. So it is hardly unsurprising that the DNC smelled blood.

There was talk for some time that comedian Stephen Colbert might actually run against Sanford, but in the end it was his sister--Elizabeth Colbert Busch--who decided to run and easily took the nomination as all other potentially legitimate candidates bowed out or opted not to run. Colbert Busch was--and really still is--a political novice when she entered the fray. Her entire campaign was largely based on her being Stephen Colbert's sister and on her not being Mark Sanford. But the powers-that-be in the DNC clearly thought this would be enough.

In the end, they were wrong, horribly wrong. Despite polling data that showed the race being a dead heat (and earlier data that showed Colbert Busch way out in front), Sanford won easily by nearly nine points. It really wasn't a race at all. If the RNC hadn't abandoned Sanford, his margin of victory would likely have been even larger.

Going in to the election, the Left was all a-twitter about what this election would mean; many saw it as a sign for the 2014 elections, evidence that the Democrats would have a real shot at taking back the House. The DNC and the Obama machine backed the virtually unknown Colbert Busch to the hilt to make this potential seem real. Their hopes were buttressed by analysis from places like Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight blog that argued for the distinct possibility of a competitive race, that--as late as early April--said Colbert Busch "might win." The flawed polls from PPP added even more fuel to this fire.

And now that the smoke has cleared, now that the results have dashed all of these nonsensical hopes, the DNC is still trying to cling to the idea that it was a real contest, that it meant something:
"The fact that the Democrat made this competitive is a testament to the strength of Elizabeth Colbert Busch as a candidate and the Republican habit of nominating flawed candidates," Israel said. "Democrats will be aggressive and drive deep into Republican-held territory this cycle to find districts with flawed candidates where we can compete."
The House Majority PAC, which spent $450,000 on TV ads and direct mail to boost Colbert Busch, said the outcome in South Carolina reflects poorly on the GOP.
"The House Republican caucus has added yet another ethically challenged embarrassment who will be an albatross around the neck of every Republican forced to answer for Mark Sanford's embarrassing and reckless behavior," said Alixandria Lapp, executive director of House Majority PAC.
The last bit is particularly funny, given that it comes from a party still idolizing philanderer extraordinaire Bill Clinton.

But the real lesson here, the one Democrats and their minions don't want to face, is that safe Republican districts are still safe Republican districts, that talented politicians can still easily defeat weak candidates with no credentials, other than a famous relative. Even Chis Cillizza knows the truth when it's right in front of him:
How did a governor who left office in 2010 dogged by his admission of an extramarital affair who then faced trespassing charges from his ex-wife during the campaign wind up winning?
He was the better candidate. In basketball, the team with the best player usually wins. (It’s why the Miami Heat are still the favorite to win the NBA championship this year.) In politics, the better candidate usually wins. And, Sanford was quite clearly the better candidate on the stump. 
Sanford has always had a folksiness about him to which voters in the state respond; there’s a reason he’s never lost a single election. He also is (and always has been) a gifted communicator on television. Sanford’s go anywhere, talk to anyone approach (more on that below) worked to defuse some of the negativeness directed at his personal life and seemed to convince enough people that he wasn't that bad a guy.
There are other reasons Cillizza provides to flesh out his piece, but this one represents the crux of it. Sanford won because he knows what he's doing, because he actually has a legislative and governing record to run on that appeals to a broad swath of the electorate. True enough, his personal issues were--and may continue to be--a drag on his campaign, but then the standard line from the left--when it came to Clinton's transgressions--is that such personal issues have no bearing on political capabilities. The insistence on their part that Sanford's transgressions still matter is laughably hypocritical.

Now, my own perspective on such things is that they do matter, especially when the person committing them is in office. Clinton's actions with an intern were a serious issue of security, as were Sanford's. Yet Clinton has never suffered a lack of support from the Left. At least the Right backed away from Sanford. He's had to earn his way back, largely on his own, and while I can't say I think much of him as a person, I have to give him credit for making his way back. Because he does represent a powerful voice, when it comes to fiscal policy. So I'm cautiously optimistic about his future.

And I'm openly amused by the fantasy currently enveloping the Democrats, when it comes to the 2014 elections. Take back the House? Please. It will be all they can do to hold on to the Senate.

Cheers, all.

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