My, how things have changed. Tonight’s special election between Mark Sanford and Elizabeth Colbert Busch is a pure toss-up, and it’s not just the campaign’s competitiveness that’s unexpected. It’s that despite the district's heavy Republican lean, Democrats somehow have more to lose.
Democrats have spent nearly $1 million on the race even as the Republican congressional campaign committee very publicly announced weeks ago that it would no longer support the scandal-ridden former governor. The House GOP’s campaign arm pulled out of the race after it was revealed Sanford faced charges from his ex-wife that he had trespassed at her home in February. At the time, officials at the political committee said they were worried about additional damaging revelations against Sanford, whom they no longer viewed as a sure bet to win.
Their withdrawal – combined with the Democrats’ increased spending and Sanford’s ever-growing baggage – effectively flipped expectations, making Colbert Busch the perceived favorite.
Now, Democrats are faced with the very real possibility that their million-dollar investment could yield no return. Sanford has staged a late comeback, telling voters that a vote for Colbert Busch is a vote for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. Voters might not condone Sanford’s foibles, the Republican’s thinking goes, but they still want a representative who will try to thwart Democratic leadership and President Obama.
Even if Colbert Busch wins, critics will suggest she triumphed only because of Sanford’s unique and well-known flaws. Republicans will gloat that she instantly becomes their top midterm target, forced to compete against a candidate who can make the campaign about the issues, not any personal backstory.
A win here for Democrats would still serve as a boon for fundraising and candidate recruitment, not to mention proof it can win in the kind of ruby red districts Republicans have previously considered safe. But a loss will elicit heckles that national Democrats wasted precious time and money. That's not an ideal way to start the 2014 election cycle.