I know that the focus of this blog is to investigate the Invisible Primary, the run-up to the real presidentials where candidates vie for media, mindfulness, and money. At times, however, when circumstances demand it, we have to veer off course and pay attention to a very real (and visible) primary election in order to more fully understand the political climate of our beloved IP.
And so our eyes turn to South Carolina, where (sigh) disgraced former Governor Mark Sanford has belied all of my predictions (sigh) and won the GOP special primary run-off election to fill the vacated 1st congressional district.
To avoid a serious case of solipsism, I will not write endlessly about how I wrote this should never happen. Instead, I want to take a peek at the reasons Sanford won and the impact this win might have on Republican politics writ large.
First things first - the comeback kid. To recap events, just in case you weren’t paying attention the first time: When Mark Sanford was Governor of South Carolina in 2009 he disappeared over Father’s Day weekend, his security detail couldn’t find him, and his office staffers said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. Turns out he was in Argentina visiting a woman-not-his-wife and when he finally returned all hell broke loose. Sanford kept his job, lost his wife, and gained a fiancé when the Argentinian lady came to the states and set up shop. He is currently on his political redemption tour, which apparently includes running for Congress. Voila: You are up to speed. So how the hell did Sanford win the primary? Well, it was a crowded field that was so crowded; a run-off was mandated because no one won a majority of the vote. Sanford is now pitted against Elizabeth Colbert Busch (comedian Stephen Colbert’s sister) in the special election to be held in May. She has money, momentum, and name recognition, and there’s a very real chance she will win.
But South Carolina’s political flavor plays a big role here. The Palmetto State is red, red, red. The State Legislature and Governor’s Mansion are occupied by Republicans, and of the state’s seven US House members, only one (James Clyburn) is a Democrat. So there’s that. Also: Redistricting. Lonce and Chris have both addressed how redistricting plays important roles in shaping the election map, and so I will instruct our readers to look down-blog a bit for more info on this. Suffice it to say here, SC-1 is a very conservative district, one that Sanford himself represented before, one that has been redrawn to be even more right-leaning. In 2012, Mitt Romney won the district by 18 points. So it seems natural that a Republican would win (easily) here. BUT, you put this into the larger national conversation about the future of the GOP and there emerges a hitch in the giddy-up. Folks at the federal level are worried about losing this seat, and this brings us to the nationalization of this race and the tie-in to the IP environment.
As stated in an earlier posting, the GOP is up against a narrative that it is anti-immigrant, anti-poor, and anti-woman. Since Sanford’s fiancé is from Argentina, we will assume that he is pro-immigration, but since he humiliated his wife in the process of finding his true love there is a very decent chance the women’s vote is in play. Sanford tried to mitigate this damage by asking his ex-wife to run his new congressional campaign, a maneuver that undoubtedly made women everywhere say “Wait. Whaaaaa?” as they banged their heads against their desks.
Colbert Busch went immediately on the offensive launching ads after Sanford’s run-off win that accused him of being untrustworthy and anti-woman. This is a narrative that could not only gain traction against Sanford, but could also play a more considerable role in the national GOP. No one in the South Carolina delegation has endorsed Sanford, an indication of his unpopularity and of the baggage he would bring with him to the Republican Party. Apparently, national GOP figures are asking Sen. Tim Scott, who was appointed to the Senate and thus coughed up the SC-1 House seat, to endorse Sanford. But in 2009, Scott signed a letter that asked for Sanford to resign, saying Sanford’s actions had “reveal[ed] a pattern of poor decision making and questionable leadership.” Whoops.
And herein ties the SC primary race to the present conundrum of the GOP: The voters want candidates to stand for something, and to back up these stands with consistency and action. When the GOP says it is going to be the Kinder Gentler Party (version 2.0) and its representatives use terms like “wetbacks,” something smells amiss. Similarly, when GOP candidates and officials call for family values, I do not think they are calling for multiple families or situational values. I could be wrong about that. I am confident, however, that the party needs to appeal to a larger swath of the voting public, and seeming wishy-washy on their stands and on their beliefs ain’t gonna cut it.
Sanford is, wisely, trying to frame this fight as a battle between a fiscal conservative and a tax-and-spend liberal, but Colbert Busch’s business experience may stymie that narrative. The Republicans, who are now positioning themselves for the 2014 midterms and the 2016 show, are keeping an eye on this race because it may prove to be a bellwether of things to come.
It is also fairly well certain that our Invisible Primary contenders will be watching the race to see if personal foibles actually do lasting political damage in our hyper-partisan, overly-mediated climate. As we navigate the unchartered media waters these things are, apparently, undetermined. Just a warning shot: If this portends a 2016 Weiner run, I’m outta here.