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Will dirty tricks send Mark Sanford to Congress?
As the GOP warms up to the flailing South Carolina ex-governor, somebody's smearing Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch
Former Gov. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) makes a campaign stop in Charleston on March 19.
Former Gov. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) makes a campaign stop in Charleston on March 19. AP Photo/Bruce Smith
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n May 7, voters in South Carolina's first congressional district go to the polls for a special election to fill an empty House seat. The district is pretty heavily Republican, but things haven't been going so well for the GOP candidate in the race, former Gov. Mark Sanford. The latest public poll, from PPP, showed Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch beating him by 9 points, 50 percent to 41 percent.

Sanford is now accusing "Nancy Pelosi and her allies" of spending more than $1 million to defeat him, says Dana Milbank at The Washington Post. And in a way, he's right to be indignant: "It is outrageous that Democrats would engage in such reckless and irresponsible spending to defeat him. Sanford was perfectly capable of defeating himself." Here's an incomplete rundown of things Sanford has done to sabotage his campaign since winning the GOP primary in March:

  • Introduced his sons to his Argentine former mistress (now fiancée) on stage at his GOP-primary victory party
  • Admitted to trespassing at his much-more-popular ex-wife's house, losing him financial support of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC)
  • Publicly debated a cardboard cutout of Pelosi
  • Played deaf at his one debate with Colbert Busch, when she brought up his Argentina dalliance
  • Took out a newspaper ad giving voters his cell phone number and comparing his campaign to the Alamo (but getting the date wrong by 27 years)

Another sign that "Republicans are deeply worried about the race," says Steve Benen at MSNBC, is that somebody is paying a Connecticut polling firm to conduct what looks a lot like a "direct-to-voter smear campaign" masquerading as a message-testing poll. Think Progress heard from a few South Carolina voters who got calls from a group identifying itself as "SSI Polling," asking a bunch of "highly misleading" questions. A sampling:

"What would you think of Elizabeth Colbert Busch if I told you she had had an abortion?"
"What would you think of Elizabeth Colbert Busch if I told you a judge held her in contempt of court at her divorce proceedings?"
"What would you think of Elizabeth Colbert Busch if she had done jail time?"
"What would you think of Elizabeth Colbert Busch if I told you she was caught running up a charge account bill?"

No one is claiming that any of these charges are true. Connecticut's Survey Sampling International admits to making what it calls "messaging testing" polls in the race, on behalf of an unidentified third party, but denies that it engaged in "push polling." Well, this sure seems to fit right in with South Carolina's "long history of dealing with sexualized smear tactics," says Amanda Marcotte at Slate:

John McCain lost the 2000 primary after rumors were floated that he had illegitimately fathered a black daughter and forced his wife to raise her. Nikki Haley got to enjoy a whole host of weird, almost surely untrue accusations that she'd slept with various political consultants. Newt Gingrich, whose colorful sexual history had not yet turned off South Carolina primary voters, was accused of forcing his ex-wife to have an abortion in a fake email sent to voters. The abortion question aimed at Colbert Busch is a particularly delightful attempt to deflect sexual shame off the adulterous man in the race. [Slate]

There's no indication that Sanford is behind the sketchy calls, and he's aware of South Carolina's reputation. In fact, he sees a billboard from stunt-prone extramarital-dating site AshleyMadison.com in the same light Colbert Busch's supporters view the phone calls. "South Carolina is the land of strange politics and in essence, dirty political tricks," Sanford local TV station WCSC. The AshleyMadison billboard with his face on it is "in that category."

Still, things are looking up for Sanford, says Sean Lengell at The Washington Times. "After giving Mark Sanford the cold shoulder for months, the Republican establishment slowly is warming to the former governor's campaign." The NRCC still isn't putting money in the race, "but newfound support from within the party — including the endorsements this week from the state's two Republican senators — has given the sagging Sanford campaign a boost," says Lengell. Other lawmakers adding late endorsements include Gov. Nikki Haley (R), Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and his father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).

Whether Mr. Sanford's late support is fueled by genuine admiration or GOP fear it could lose the district for the first time in more than three decades — or a bit of both — is uncertain.... But most analysts say the race is much tighter [than the PPP poll's 9-point spread]. [Washington Times]

The race is "a real tossup," College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts tells Reuters. But it's a real testament to Colbert Busch's skill and Sanford's ineptitude that a Democrat is even competitive in this election. Colbert Busch is campaigning as a jobs- and education-focused fiscal conservative, but Sanford's foibles have dominated the race, crowding out the issues — which should be a strong point for the Republicans in the conservative district. "The focus on personalities appears to have played out in favor of Colbert Busch," says Reuters' Harriet McLeod, and that may be enough to push her over the edge on May 7.

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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