South Carolina 1: Can Sanford Survive Round Two?

Jessica Taylor March 20, 2013 · 11:38 AM EDT

The Mark Sanford redemption tour goes on-- and his unlikely political comeback may have even gotten slightly easier after Tuesday’s GOP primary.

The biggest surprise wasn’t that the former governor topped the 16 candidate field, as was widely expected. Instead, in what ended up being a much higher-turnout affair than many had anticipated, it was former Charleston City Councilman Curtis Bostic who edged out other self-funding and higher-profile candidates in the special election in South Carolina’s 1st District, buoyed by strong turnout among Christian conservatives at the grassroots level.

Sanford led the field with nearly 37 percent of the vote, assuring him a spot in the runoff in two weeks. But with all precincts reporting, Bostic appears to have edged out state Sen. Larry Grooms by just 493 votes for second place, and just narrowly within the margin for an automatic recount, which must be completed by Friday. After initially refusing to concede on Tuesday evening, Wednesday morning Grooms appeared to admit defeat Wednesday morning on his Facebook page.

Bostic’s matchup with the once-disgraced Sanford appears, on paper, to be a mismatched affair. Bostic put $100,000 of his own money into his campaign, but as of February 27 had just $57,000 in the bank, compared to Sanford’s $365,000. According to Bostic’s campaign, he has already started planning more fundraisers and will put $50,000 more of his own money into his campaign.

Sanford has a team of well-seasoned advisers, and his campaign ads, produced by Jamestown Associates, are slick and professional. Bostic’s ads, produced by local Barnfly Productions, feature his family and are noticeably lower budget. Bostic spent only $20,000 on television, while Sanford’s spending topped $160,000.

A personal injury lawyer who lives just narrowly outside the district, Bostic is active in the homeschool community and he built an outdoor retreat area by his home for church and community groups to use. He served for eight years on the Charleston City Council before losing re-election in 2008. During the primary, Bostic pointed toward his work on the council -- alongside now-Sen. Tim Scott, whose appointment triggered the special election -- as a key qualification, as well as his service in the Marine Corps. Despite living just a mile outside the 1st District, Bostic argued that his business and community involvement has been within district lines. Much like Sanford, Bostic has emphasized cutting spending as part of his platform, and his own campaign website is stopspending.com, in lieu of a traditional URL with his name.

Bostic boasted about his positive campaign in his ads, but in the Palmetto State, where politics is a bloodsport, that resolve could be stretched in the upcoming runoff. In reality, Sanford faced a much sharper threat from a deep-pocketed opponent who was sure to exploit his extramarital affair and state ethics fines. And while Bostic’s own ads have talked about his Christian faith and featured his wife and children, Bostic hasn’t made any overt attacks over Sanford’s past sins.

But that could change in the next two weeks. Bostic manager David O’Connell said that while his candidate is committed to running a clean campaign, Sanford’s past isn’t off limits.

“I think the voters are well aware of the former governor’s personal shortcomings, and those things are fair game,” O’Connell told the Report. “[Sanford] did leave his post, he had a duty to uphold and was derelict in his duty. I don’t think that’s a personal attack -- that’s talking about something in his record.”

Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer said their strategy in the coming weeks would be the same as it had been -- campaigning on Sanford’s record of fiscal discipline, both in the governor’s mansion and on Capitol Hill.

“We will continue to point out Mark’s strengths,” said Sawyer. “ He has a record of cutting spending and cutting debt and deficit.”

Bostic started getting late buzz in the primary, even though he spent significantly less than other candidates and wasn’t initially seen as a top contender. But buoyed by a turnout effort among Christian conservatives and the homeschool community, he edged into second place. O’Connell called that coalition “the difference in the race.”

Bostic’s turnout operation will be put to an even greater test in the runoff in two weeks, though. While his coalition of voters may have come out to the polls in the initial primary to propel him to a narrow second place victory, it will take much more than that to boost his 13 percent showing above 50 percent in the runoff.

The most crucial moves to watch in the coming days are where other top candidates throw their support. Many other candidates were highly critical of Sanford during the primary, and if they line up behind Bostic, their backing -- both vocally and financially -- are an immediate plus. If almost two-thirds of GOP primary voters, who know Sanford well, didn’t support the former governor the first time around, how many of them are willing to vote for him in Round 2?

South Carolina has a history of the second place finisher eclipsing the frontrunner in the abbreviated runoff. Such a scenario happened during last year’s open seat race in the new 7th District, with now-Rep. Tom Rice vaulting ahead of former Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, as many former candidates lined up behind Rice over the controversial Bauer. And looking further back to the 2004 open GOP Senate primary, former Gov. David Beasley finished first in the initial primary with 37 percent but was overcome by then-Rep. Jim DeMint in the runoff. DeMint’s resignation from the Senate created the domino effect that caused this congressional special election.

It’s not all smooth sailing for either Sanford or Bostic after the April 2 runoff, though. Elizabeth Colbert-Busch, sister of comedian Stephen Colbert, easily won the Democratic primary on Tuesday with 96 percent of the vote, and Democrats hope she can present an alternative to a controversial candidate, like Sanford. But she still has an uphill battle in the Charleston district that Mitt Romney won with 58 percent. And while Colbert-Busch got over 15,700 votes, that made up 96 percent of Democratic primary voters compared to Sanford’s 19,800 votes, which made up just over a third of Republican primary voters.