So Mark Sanford is returning to Congress after a very convincing (54/45) win over Elizabeth Colbert Busch in the special election to fill a vacancy in the first district of South Carolina. Turnout (32%) was actually a bit higher than most observers expected. For all the fireworks and the April polling showing Busch with a solid lead, the district’s Republican character (Romney carried it by 18 points in a presidential year, when Democratic turnout is at its peak) prevailed.
In terms of the campaign itself, Sanford did exactly what most of us thought he would do from the git-go: seek maximum partisan and ideological polarization of the race so that Republicans unhappy with him would eventually find a duty to vote against the Democrat. There was a moment when the revelation of a trespassing complaint against Sanford by his famous and popular ex-wife, Jenny, which in turn helped produce a withdrawal of his support from the national GOP campaign committee, looked to cook Mark’s goose. But the moment passed, and as WaPo’s Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan observed today, late endorsements of Sanford by Tim Scott, Lindsey Graham and Nikki Haley, along with such national right-wing validators as Rand Paul and FreedomWorks, were enough to make the hold-your-nose-and-vote-against-the-godless-liberal message effective. It may have been a stupid stunt, but when Sanford “debated” a cardboard cutout of Nancy Pelosi, it did reinforce the only real message he had—or needed.
For Democrats, the results are obviously discouraging, but the results just showed that party and ideology can trump a scandal in a district like this, and that non-presidential contests continue to produce pro-Republican turnout patterns. The seat would have been very difficult to hold in November in any event.
I will say that Busch’s defeat shows once again that the old southern white Democratic formula of moving as far to the right as possible and hoping to win a personality contest just doesn’t much work anymore, which is why the ranks of the Blue Dog southern white Democrats in the House from the Deep South have dwindled to near nothingness (there’s still John Barrow of Georgia, who announced yesterday he would not run for the Senate in 2014, but that’s about it). At a minimum, any southern Democratic revival is going to depend on candidates who can get reliable Democratic voters enthused enough to turn out when the presidency is not at stake.
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