House races are usually prime examples of the saying "all politics is local." A handful gain national prominence — in Minnesota, Rep. Michele Bachmann's near-loss in 2012, or the super-expensive Howard Berman–Brad Sherman intraparty grudge match in Southern California — but most of the races are between people whose names you don't know, arguing about issues you don't know or care about. Then there's South Carolina's 1st Congressional District.
The congressman representing the conservative Charleston-based district, Tim Scott (R), was sent to the Senate by Gov. Nikki Haley (R) to replace Jim DeMint (R), and Tuesday was the primary election. On the Republican side, former Gov. Mark Sanford — infamous for skipping the country during his term for a tryst with his Argentine mistress, telling his aides he was hiking the Appalachian Trail — earned by far the most votes: 37 percent in a 16-candidate race. Still, he faces an April 2 runoff election. On the Democratic side, Elizabeth Colbert Busch — a businesswoman and political novice most famous for being sister to star comedian Stephen Colbert — handily won the right to compete in the May 7 general election. (She pronounces her name COL-burt — watch the video below for the story.)
The race has already produced some pretty good political drama — Sanford reportedly asked his estranged ex-wife, Jenny, to run his campaign (she refused), and Stephen Colbert took the rare step of breaking character to stump for his big sister. Also, one of Sanford's vanquished GOP opponents was Teddy Turner, the son of eccentric media mogul Ted Turner. The young Turner's "family ties, deep pockets, and a sudden rise in some internal polling... made him a big target," says Jim Acosta at CNN. "Opponents filled mailboxes with attack ads on Turner, with some tying the candidate to one of his father's ex-wives, Jane Fonda."
But if Sanford-Colbert is the race that South Carolina voters want, national observers are enthusiastically onboard:
so it's Stephen Colbert's sister in one bracket. Mark Sanford will have a play-in game first. then an entertaining race is set in SC-1.
— Rick Klein (@rickklein) March 20, 2013
Am I to understand the SC race will be btwn Colbert's sister and the intrepid hiker of famous trails? So much to love.
— Libby Spencer (@libbyspencer) March 20, 2013
Stephen Colbert says he won't sit the race out, either, upping the potential entertainment quotient. "She's my sister, and I'm willing to break the jewel of my own creation to try to do something for her," he told CNN's Jake Tapper on Monday. "I'm not worried about what it'll do to my show." So expect jokes about "the former governor of the Appalachian Trail," but also, perhaps, Sanford's challenger. "I said, 'Lulu, if you do something funny I will make jokes about you,'" Colbert adds, using his nickname for his sister.
As for who is going to win that contest — assuming Sanford wins the GOP runoff, as expected — it's generally seen as Sanford's race to lose. Before being elected governor, he was the district's congressman for three terms, and he got about 20,000 votes, versus some 16,000 for Colbert Busch, even though the Democrat won 96 percent of the vote against gadfly challenger Ben Frasier. For Sanford, the only thing "standing between him and a return to Congress and full political redemption" is Colbert Busch, says Jason Zengerle at New York. "In other words, not much."
Other political analysts are a little more optimistic for Colbert Busch. "Democratic strategists believe that in the May general election Mrs. Colbert Busch could peel off female Republican voters faced with having to chose Mr. Sanford or cross party lines," says Kim Severson in The New York Times. The election at least sets "the stage for what many thought impossible: A chance for a conservative district in a very red state to send a Democrat to Congress."
For that to happen, Sanford would probably have to make a pretty big misstep, Gibbs Knotts, chairman of the political science department at the College of Charleston, tells USA Today. Colbert Busch has some things going for her: Sanford has to endure and survive two weeks of attacks from a Republican opponent, and the relationship to Stephen Colbert will probably allow her to raise enough money to make it a competitive race. "A very smart, well-run campaign could win," Knotts says, "but it's still a pretty big hill to climb for Democrats."