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Why Sanford vs. Colbert Busch Could Be Competitive

Former Gov. Mark Sanford won a runoff election this week, securing the Republican nomination for South Carolina’s First Congressional District. He will face the Democratic nominee, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, in a May 7 general election.

The First District, which runs from Hilton Head Island in the south to north of Charleston, is solidly Republican, and typically a Congressional race in the conservative Lowcountry would provide little suspense: Republicans have held the seat since 1981.

But this election is not typical. Mr. Sanford enters the general election with significant personal baggage, having spent six days in 2009 in Argentina with a woman who was not his wife while telling his aides he was “hiking the Appalachian Trail.” (He and the woman are now engaged.) Ms. Colbert Busch, meanwhile, is an accomplished businesswoman with deep ties to the district’s business community. She is also the sister of the comedian Stephen Colbert. The odd matchup, in turn, takes place in an off-year special election. Special elections usually mean low turnout, and low turnout often means a Republican-leaning electorate. But special elections can also provide surprising results.

A number of well-informed observers think the election could be competitive.

There have not yet been any nonpartisan polls of the race, but a survey by Lake Research Partners for the Colbert Busch campaign showed the Democrat ahead of Mr. Sanford, 47 percent to 44 percent. (Partisan polls have historically overestimated their candidate’s standing by about six percentage points.) Another poll, by the left-leaning Public Policy Polling, showed similar numbers, with Ms. Colbert Busch leading Mr. Sanford 47 percent to 45 percent.

Both those polls, however, were conducted before Mr. Sanford officially secured the Republican nomination. His chances of winning a seat in Congress may depend largely on his ability to consolidate the conservative vote. He received 57 percent in Tuesday’s two-way runoff election, and will need to win over voters who just cast ballots against him.

How likely are the First District’s Republicans to stay in the party’s camp? South Carolina is known as a deep-red state, but the First District boasts a more moderate brand of conservatism. The district’s lines were redrawn after the 2010 census, and Georgetown and Horry Counties were moved elsewhere. The result is an electorate roughly the same in terms of Democrat versus Republican but less defined by cultural conservatism and focused more on fiscal restraint.

Voters in downtown Charleston (the tip of the peninsula), Mount Pleasant and Isle of Palms in the district’s north are generally affluent and less strident on social issues. “This is the economic conservative heart of the district,” said David Wasserman, the House editor for the Cook Political Report.

Hilton Head Island in the south is also characterized by a more moderate Republicanism, partly thanks to the many transplants from the Northeast who have moved to the region.

While on its own, the First District’s fiscal conservatism may not help Ms. Colbert Busch — Mr. Sanford represented the district in the late 1990s and is known as a fiscal hawk — the fact that the district is less socially conservative means fewer voters may disqualify Ms. Colbert Busch for her support of same-sex marriage and abortion rights.

Moreover, the First District is solidly Republican, but not overwhelmingly so. It has a Cook Partisan Voting Index score of R+11. It is rare, but Democrats have won congressional districts with similar scores. North Carolina’s Seventh District, which also has a score of R+11, is home to Representative Mike McIntyre, a Democrat. The Fourth Congressional District in Utah has a score of R+14 and is also represented by a Democrat, Jim Matheson.

The Republican Party has held the seat for more than 30 years, but there have been close calls. In 2008, the First District’s Republican Representative, Henry E. Brown Jr., just barely won re-election against the Democrat, Linda Ketner, 52 percent to 48 percent. It’s worth noting, however, that Mr. Brown was dogged by a controversy over a fine he received for allowing a fire on his property that spread to Francis Marion National Forest, and he ran what was generally regarded as a lackluster campaign.

The key to this race, according to Robert Oldendick, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina, may be “whether Sanford’s ethical-moral issues will hurt him among female voters or whether his ‘limited government-lower taxes’ mantra will be the more important issue.”

So far, the taint of scandal seems to have remained with Mr. Sanford. The survey by Public Policy Polling found his favorability ratings underwater, with 34 percent of voters saying they had a favorable impression of him and 58 percent saying they had an unfavorable one. The poll from Public Policy Polling also found that women were slightly more likely than men to have an unfavorable view of Mr. Sanford, but there was not much of a gender difference.

Ms. Colbert Busch is viewed favorably by 45 percent of voters, according to the same poll; 31 percent view her unfavorably (her unfavorable rating may go up as the campaign heats up and she faces Republican ads).

Ms. Colbert Busch — with a famous brother and a nonpolitical background — is an
unusual candidate, and “this is certainly a promising moment for a different kind of candidate to step forward,” said Mark Tompkins, an associate professor of political science at the University of South Carolina.

But the First District is still heavily Republican. The close race in 2008 took place in a presidential election year and amid a national Democratic wave.

Ms. Colbert Busch has a chance, but she “still has to run an almost flawless campaign,” Mr. Oldendick said.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.