Though the race for first place in Tuesday's special GOP primary in South Carolina's First District is a foregone conclusion, the battle to take on former Gov. Mark Sanford in an almost-guaranteed April 2 runoff is wide-open, according to several Republicans in the state. The list of candidates who appear most likely to win a chance to go head-to-head with Sanford following Tuesday's Republican primary whittles down to five names, according to those Republicans, all of whom have seen internal polling in the district but declined to speak about it on the record.
State Rep. Chip Limehouse, Teddy Turner, son of media mogul Ted Turner, former Charleston City Councilor Curtis Bostic, state Sen. Larry Grooms and former state Sen. John Kuhn appear to lead the pack going into Tuesday's primary, those sources said. But in 16-candidate field, where victory could come down to fewer than a few thousand votes, the fight for second could be anyone's game.
As in many elections, it will all come down to whichever candidate is best able to identify his or her support and, more importantly, get them to the polls. Given that this is a special primary on a random Tuesday in March (during Spring Break, no less), that will be even more important in this contest, say Ruth Sherlock and Leslie Gaines, who helped propel former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to an unlikely victory in the state's presidential primary last year. All five candidates have pushed hard on their get out the vote efforts and at least three -- Bostic, Limehouse and Grooms -- have natural bases.
Sherlock and Gaines say that while they often agree, they've "gone back and forth" about who has the advantage in this race. "It could turn on a dime," Sherlock says.
Whatever happens on Tuesday, no candidate will have a mandate as the anti-Sanford, given such a crowded field. The big question in the runoff is whether Sanford's support in the primary represents his ceiling and voters will coalesce around the other candidate. Several Republicans told On Call that they could just as likely stay home.
For now, the candidates are struggling to differentiate themselves in a field that seems to consist entirely of self-described tough conservatives with strong values and small business backgrounds who want to stop the spending in Washington. So, Hotline On Call decided to take a look at each candidate's strengths and weaknesses going into Election Day.
• Chip Limehouse: The Limehouse name is well-known in Charleston, where the state representative and his family own several hotels, a real estate company and other businesses. His family's history there dates back to the nation's founding. His father, Buck Limehouse, served as the state's first Secretary of Transportation during the Sanford administration and actually ran in his own special election primary in the same district in 1971, though he faced only two other candidates. One of them, former Gov. Jim Edwards, endorsed Chip this week. Limehouse's father also lost a state Senate race to Kuhn in 2001.
Limehouse himself is fairly well-known, having represented much of the northern part of the district in the state House since 1995. His current district includes Charleston, the congressional district's population center, but not Hilton Head, where a large number of voters live as well. To make up for that and the three days he must spend in Columbia to fulfill his state House duties every week rather than on the campaign trail, Limehouse has run a very aggressive ad campaign and is currently running more than thousand points on television, according to former state party chairman Katon Dawson -- as are Turner, Kuhn and Sanford, Dawson added. Limehouse has funneled more than $600,000 into his campaign to keep the pace, according to documents filed the Federal Election Commission, more than any other candidate.
• Teddy Turner: The son of a wealthy liberal media mogul and stepson of actress Jane Fonda, is running as a conservative outsider -- and running away from his family name. Turner is the only top-tier candidate to have never held elected office and has pushed his outsider status, running several television ads calling on voters to "break up with career politicians," using the relationship metaphor to not-so-subtely remind voters of Sanford's affair.
Turner has been buoyed by nearly $350,000 out of his own pocket, causing several of the other candidates -- who merely loaned their campaigns hundreds of thousands of dollars -- to accuse him of trying to "buy" the election. But the concerns about Turner haven't been limited to his wealth and family. Recently, a 2006 police report surfaced in which Turner was charged with kicking in a door when his estranged wife wouldn't answer it (his campaign said that the charges were dropped). Several of the candidates have also criticized Turner's business failings.
Because Turner is a political neophyte, he doesn't have the inherent base of support that his opponents bring to the table. But Turner has been the subject of a lot of national media attention and has run more television ads in the district than any other candidate. He's also focused heavily on traveling the district and meeting with voters, says campaign manager Michael Smith, who added that the campaign is investing heavily in their ground game in the final days, particularly in Charleston and in the southern part of the district.
• Curtis Bostic: The former Marine has raised significantly less money than any of the top-tier candidates, and he hasn't been seen much on TV. His ads are low-quality, and he just hasn't had the money to run as many ads as his opponents have. But, perhaps more than any of the other candidates, Bostic has a base. Bostic is very active in both the evangelical Christian and home-school communities, and he has hosted radio shows on three Christian radio stations in Charleston over the past 15 years.
The campaign has been working hard to turn out the voters in those communities. They've started a group called Priority One, says campaign manager David O'Connell, in which they're encouraging church members to reach out to others to vote for Bostic -- and then pass along that contact information to the campaign. "In a low-turnout model, a guy with a base is someone to look at," Dawson said.
Aside from his lack of money and TV presence, Bostic has another big problem: he doesn't live in the district. But, Bostic told the Island Packet of Hilton Head, he lives a mere 4,500 feet away and he works and his kids attend school within district lines. That hasn't soothed his opponents, however. "He's telling you to vote for him, but his own family can't vote for him," Grooms spokesman Hogan Gidley said in a phone interview.
Still, Bostic has run a positive campaign, and that's helped him to stand out from a field that has grown increasingly nasty in the last few weeks.
• Larry Grooms: First elected to the state Senate in 1997, Grooms has gotten to know a number of politicians in the state, including Reps. Jeff Duncan and Mick Mulvaney, both of whom have endorsed him. If there were an "inside" candidate in the race, other than Sanford, it would almost certainly be Grooms.
But Grooms has spent much of his time on the campaign trail running as a tea party candidate and touting his business acumen. He and his wife started a small convenience store years back and have since transformed it into a chain. The pro-business community are major supporters of Grooms, Gidley argued. "He was the only legislator mentioned when Boeing came to Charleston," he said. "Boeing themselves mentioned Larry Grooms."
Grooms is also competing with Bostic for the evangelical vote and has recently taken to touting his positions on same-sex marriage and the sanctity of life both in television ads and on the trail. Last week, Grooms worked the drive-thru at a Chick-fil-A.
Several Republicans indicated that Grooms' candidacy had not caught fire the way that some of his opponents' have, but Dawson cautioned against counting Grooms out. "I've watched him win elections that he wasn't supposed to win," he said.
"Sanford has the money people, but it's not always the money people who show up to vote," added Gaines, the former Gingrich strategist. "That's why we keep turning back to Larry Grooms. ... He will turn out that vote."
• John Kuhn: Looked at one way, the special election is an opportunity for Kuhn to get revenge against a governor with whom he frequently battled with in the state Senate and who stymied his reelection efforts in 2004. Though Sanford didn't endorse in the Republican primary for Kuhn's seat that year, he was effusive in his praise of Kuhn's opponent, a close friend and member of his cabinet. Then-wife Jenny Sanford's $1,000 donation to Kuhn's opponent lead to a very public spat between the two in the Capitol building and contributed to Kuhn's loss.
Kuhn's campaign denied that any candidate's entry in the race spurred him to run for Congress -- and, indeed, Kuhn was the second to announce his candidacy, after Turner -- but he has been by far the most vocal critic of Sanford in the race. Kuhn ended a debate two weeks ago by saying, "I've never cheated on my wife, and I'm not going to. If you send me to Washington, there will be no scandals."
Kuhn remains well-known in the Charleston area, both for his time in the state Senate, and as a local lawyer, who built a law practice from the ground-up with his wife 30 years ago. He has put $500,000 into his campaign, which has helped to blanket the district in mailers and television spots. He also has a good team working for him, says Dawson. Many of his staffers worked on freshman Rep. Tom Rice's, R-S.C., successful 2012 campaign.