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Elizabeth Colbert Busch could rally the Democratic faithful in SC-1 election

A New Hope?

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For Lowcountry Democrats, 2008 was the election year that got away. In addition to being the year 54 percent of Charleston County voters picked Barack Obama for president, it was the first year in decades that the Democrats put up a serious challenger for South Carolina's District 1 U.S. House seat.

Linda Ketner, a gifted speaker with a platform that included overhauling No Child Left Behind and protecting rivers from mercury contamination, almost claimed a seat in Congress that had been held by Republicans since the beginning of the Reagan era. Ketner lost by a mere four points to Republican incumbent Henry Brown.

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This year, as 16 contenders duke it out for the Republican nomination in a special election to fill Tim Scott's vacated House seat, the Democrats look like they'll be putting their money on Elizabeth Colbert Busch. A newcomer to the political arena, Colbert Busch has built a career in international shipping and spent the last few years working as director of business development for Clemson University's Restoration Institute.

Colbert Busch bears a few similarities to Ketner, the first of which is obvious: She's a woman. If elected, Colbert Busch would be the first woman to hold the District 1 seat since Democratic Rep. Clara Gooding McMillan (1939-1941).

Also like Ketner, Colbert Busch appears to have some serious fundraising firepower. This sets her apart from last year's Democratic candidate, Bobbie Rose, who raised a paltry $136,000 and got steamrolled in the general election by Scott's $1.7 million campaign. The Federal Election Commission has no records of Colbert Busch's fundraising yet, but on Saturday, she will host her first big fundraising bash at the Alley, an upscale bowling alley on Columbus Street. Ticket prices range from $250 to $5,200 — the maximum individual contribution allowed by federal law — and high-paying guests will enjoy a private dinner on Sullivan's Island with Colbert Busch and TV personality Stephen Colbert. (Oh yeah, did we mention that Stephen Colbert is her little brother?)

Rose initially filed to run in this year's Democratic special primary, but she dropped out early and threw her support behind Colbert Busch, as did Democrat Martin Skelly. Colbert Busch will still face perennial candidate Ben Frasier in the March 19 primary, but she's already got the backing of prominent Dems including Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, and the statewide AFL-CIO union.

One more similarity to Ketner: Colbert Busch is a careful public speaker with a pragmatic platform that isn't likely to spook moderates and swing voters. Colbert Busch has built a career at the intersection of academia, industry, and international trade, so one item on her agenda is hardly surprising: "If we're going to be a manufacturing society, we have to educate all of our children from pre-K all the way through the technical schools, high schools, and colleges in science, technology, engineering, and math," she says.

Another issue on Colbert Busch's radar is deepening and improving Charleston Harbor, which has been in a neck-and-neck race to out-improve the Port of Savannah's entryway by the time of the Panama Canal deepening in 2014. She says she would work to make sure South Carolina gets the funding to keep up maintenance and improvements on its port.

"Bottom line, I'm a businesswoman," Colbert Busch says. After 21 years climbing the ranks at Orient Oversea Container Lines, she took a position with Clemson's research project on North Charleston's Navy Yard, which studies water resource management and tests drivetrains for wind energy turbines.

Colbert Busch is a big believer in Silicon Harbor, the hopeful-sounding nickname for a new wave of technology startups in the Charleston area, and she says she hopes to emulate North Carolina's Research Triangle in that respect — but with an extra emphasis on green tech. "We know from the maritime industry that the next 50 to 100 years is going to be about an environmental economy," she says.

There's not much else to say about Colbert Busch's platform. STEM education, harbor deepening, and envirotech are the only talking points she brings up in the 15-minute phone interview she granted the City Paper, and her campaign website provides no other clues. Voters might have to wait until the general-election debates to find out her plans for gun control, foreign policy, and solving the debt crisis. "The overall picture is improving the life of the middle class," she says. "It's giving people jobs again. It's helping with their education. It's supporting growth and prosperity."

Doesn't sound too controversial, does it?

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