South Carolina 1: Colbert’s Sister an Underdog, but Worth Watching

by Stuart Rothenberg March 6, 2013 · 9:28 AM EST

Elizabeth Colbert Busch hopes to win a special election for Congress this year. That’s possible but also unlikely, as it would take something close to a political “perfect storm” for the Democrat to win the reliably Republican House seat in South Carolina.

Of course, you wouldn’t know that from all the ink she has received. She is, after all, the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert, who has generated plenty of attention for the Charleston-based businesswoman, no matter how uphill her challenge. Political reporters, you see, love celebrities, and that includes relatives of celebrities.

Although Colbert Busch downplays her brother’s significance, her candidacy wouldn’t be taken seriously without him; his name and connections will generate media attention and campaign contributions for her.

I haven’t interviewed her yet, but Colbert Busch seems personable and isn’t saddled with an extensive legislative record to defend. Her assets include few obvious liabilities (so far): the ability to portray herself as a businesswoman and political outsider, and the potential ability to put together a well-funded campaign.

Those qualities, plus the possibility of a damaged GOP nominee and a divided Republican Party, are reason enough to watch the race.

Unfortunately for Colbert Busch, all of those assets don’t entirely offset her one large liability: She is a Democrat.

South Carolina’s 1st District has been held by the GOP since 1980. The recently redrawn district gave President Barack Obama slightly more than 40 percent of the vote, about 2.5 points less than he earned four years earlier.

Democrats point out, quite reasonably, that their 2008 nominee, Linda Ketner, ran a strong race in a Charleston-based district with a similar partisan bent and lost to then-Rep. Henry E. Brown Jr., a Republican, by just 4 points.

I still remember interviewing Ketner. She was poised, personable, articulate and wealthy, while Brown was politically clumsy. He had also been fined for allowing a fire set on his property to spread to a national forest, burning 20 acres.

Ketner put a little more than $1 million of her own money into the race, outspending Brown $2.25 million to $1.29 million. That’s not likely to happen in this year’s special election.

Charleston County often produces a strong Democratic vote, and Ketner carried it by 8 points against Brown. Obama carried the county by more than 8 points over John McCain that same year and by just a couple of points against Mitt Romney last year.

Unsuccessful Democratic gubernatorial nominee Vincent Sheheen also carried the county, by almost 3 points, in his 2010 race against Republican Nikki R. Haley.

But while Charleston is the biggest piece of the district, slightly less than 41 percent of the district’s registered voters live there.

The second and third most populous counties in the district, newly added Beaufort (Hilton Head and fast-growing, upscale Bluffton) and Berkeley account for almost 43 percent of district voters, and both areas are reliably Republican.

Colbert Busch must hope to attract disgruntled Republican voters. That is possible, but too much of the early analysis has assumed that former Gov. Mark Sanford, who is best remembered for his headline-grabbing affair while in office, will be the eventual GOP nominee.

Sanford is expected to finish first in the crowded primary but be forced into a runoff. “It’s doubtful that Sanford is the second choice of many primary voters,” said one Republican with extensive knowledge of the state’s politics who is skeptical that the former governor can win a runoff.

Even if Sanford does survive the runoff, the climb wouldn’t be easy for Colbert Busch. As one Democratic observer told me, Sanford as the GOP nominee guarantees a competitive race, but “it isn’t clear that she can beat him.”

Colbert Busch has already been endorsed by a number of Democratic officeholders, including South Carolina Rep. James E. Clyburn, Georgia Rep. John Lewis and 10-term Charleston Mayor Joe Riley Jr., as well as by the South Carolina AFL-CIO.

She needs these endorsements if only to make sure that she disposes of African-American Ben Frasier, the party’s 2010 nominee, in the special-election primary. But those endorsements also make it easier for the GOP to make the special election into a partisan fight.

A recent article in Bluffton Today may help Republican operatives build their case.

The article said Colbert Busch “is pro-choice and supports same-sex marriage,” which is not necessarily fatal in Charleston. But it went on to raise a red flag about the likely Democratic nominee: “Busch, who wasn’t able to answer some questions and admitted policy heft isn’t her strong suit, struck an optimistic chord.”

Optimism is fine, but it usually isn’t enough if you either can’t talk about policy or prefer to avoid taking positions on issues. This should be especially concerning for Democrats given Colbert Busch’s shaky performance on MSNBC’s “Daily Rundown” last week.

Colbert Busch needs a perfect campaign and plenty of luck to have a chance to win the seat. That’s not impossible, but it also makes her a clear underdog in the special election.