South Carolina 1: Parties Prepare to Spin Colbert Busch Win

by Stuart Rothenberg May 3, 2013 · 12:44 PM EDT

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the party’s super PAC, the House Majority PAC, have spent well over half a million dollars in an effort to win a special election in South Carolina’s 1st District, a reliably Republican seat that is competitive only because Republicans nominated controversial former Gov. Mark Sanford.

But even if Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch wins the special election and gains Democrats another House seat, the party will likely have to spend millions of dollars to have any chance of holding the seat in the 2014 midterm elections. In the meantime, the additional seat will not affect the fate of legislation that the House is likely to deal with during the next year and a half.

Given that, why would Democrats invest that much money in the special election?

“The competitiveness of this race proves that when Republicans nominate fundamentally flawed candidates, Democrats can put even overwhelmingly Republican seats in play,” said Jesse Ferguson, the deputy executive director of the DCCC, who notes that the same thing might happen in other districts in 2014.

But some Democrats expect party strategists to draw a slightly different, and much broader, conclusion if Colbert Busch’s wins the May 7 contest.

“You won’t hear Mark Sanford’s name mentioned after the primary,” predicts one veteran Democratic political operative, adding, “If my party wins the seat, I’ll bet you that you’ll hear about other really Republican seats that the DCCC says it can also win.”

There is a fundraising dimension, of course, to the South Carolina special election, as well. The DCCC is raising money off of the race, and if Colbert Busch wins, the committee is likely to raise even more money, especially on the Internet.

One longtime Democratic strategist put the fundraising angle this way: “The donor base in New York and Los Angeles normally doesn’t really know any of the party’s House candidates. But they have heard about Elizabeth Colbert Busch. If she wins, the DCCC can and will argue that they have other candidates who are just as good — even better — than her around the country, and that will help them raise money.”

If Sanford loses the seat, national GOP strategists are sure to counter that they didn’t play in the race because their nominee was damaged goods, and they’ll blame the party’s defeat entirely on Sanford.

And of course, you can’t erase Sanford from the political equation in the special election, so any conclusion that ignores the candidates and the dynamics of a special election is missing the message of the May 7 contest.

But while that is true, every political operative will tell you that it is better to win than to lose. So while a Sanford defeat won’t say much about the two parties’ prospects for 2014, it will seem like another dose of bad news for a party that could use some good news.