It would be so easy to blame this all on Jim DeMint. Yep, the much-ballyhooed "kingmaker," the Tea Party patriot, the rebellious anti-Lindsey Graham who flew the coop for a tony gig across the street from his old office to boss around the most establishment of establishment Republicans at the Heritage Institute. But the truth is, it's not that simple.
The sequence of events that will lead voters to the polls on Tuesday to choose from a born-again-again Mark Sanford and the big sister of TV's Stephen Colbert is as uniquely South Carolina as mustard barbecue, palmetto flag bowties, and Frogmore stew. Which is why, as truly weird and unpredictable as the 1st District special election has been, nothing's come as much of a surprise. Like commuters on a Manhattan subway, it takes a lot to faze South Carolina voters. We've seen it all before. But could it be different this time? Is the Lowcountry on the verge of electing its first woman to Congress since World War II? The first Democrat in more than 30 years? Will Elizabeth Colbert Busch upset one of the most bizarre political comebacks since ... OK, it hasn't been that long since Newt won last year's S.C. Republican primary.
The product of the seeds of independence sown long ago in Palmetto state political soil is still seen today in the everyday operation of the state's elected officials. In some ways, today's "tea party" is a coffee table book-version of the independent streaks found in South Carolina pols dating back long before the Civil War. Indeed, once-Gov. Mark Sanford was the first guy to refuse federal stimulus funds. He was a Tea Partier before there was a Tea Party. Similar efforts to refuse federal spending in South Carolina (and elsewhere) are still underway today. From John C. Calhoun to Lee Atwater to Frank Underwood, South Carolina is inextricably part of the American political zeitgeist — a distinction affirmed this year when the Washington Post named our humble homeland, famously said to be "too small for a republic and too big for an insane asylum," the most interesting state in American politics. And the First District special election has certainly done nothing but cement that status.
Elizabeth Colbert Busch may be a political newcomer, but she's not the only candidate in recent history to make a charge into politics via the "Fightin' First," or even the first woman, for that matter. In 2008, Linda Ketner came within three percentage points of knocking off former Rep. Henry Brown, who had held the seat since Mark Sanford's departure to run for governor in 2001. Brown, who was 74 when he retired, was not as dynamic as Sanford on the stump, but maintained the loyalty of the deeply Republican First District, holding all challengers before Ketner below 40 percent in the polls. Ketner, an openly gay, liberal businesswoman, was the first candidate in recent memory who managed to harness the Democratic momentum in the First District.
Ketner's ability to connect on a personal level is not unlike what Colbert Busch has shown on the campaign trail so far. But Mark Sanford has shown himself to be a skilled campaigner as well, and is certainly not short on practice after living in the public eye for nearly two decades.
Sanford owes his chance at a comeback at least in part to DeMint, who resigned from the Senate in January, prompting Gov. Nikki Haley to appoint District 1 Rep. Tim Scott to take over the seat. Now, Sanford has elbowed his way past 15 other GOP contenders for a shot at Scott's vacated House seat.
But aside from the partisan posturing and bedroom politics, what's really at stake? On one side of the aisle, Republicans have nominated a small-government proselyte who previously held the District 1 seat from 1995 to 2001 and served as governor from 2003 to 2011. The arch-libertarian Cato Institute named Sanford America's most fiscally conservative governor in 2010, capping off a tenure that included several instances of budget veto brinksmanship and a refusal of federal stimulus money for education. If voters want someone who's serious about slashing budgets, Sanford is their man.
On the left, Democrats have selected a political newcomer who has nonetheless proven to be a skilled fundraiser. Colbert Busch comes from a career in international shipping and at Clemson University's Restoration Institute. She has the backing of the S.C. Working Families Party and a few labor unions who have donated to the campaign, and her hot-button issues include green business development, expanding 4-year-old pre-K offerings, and cutting out wasteful spending in Medicare.
And then there's Eugene Platt, the sharp-tongued Green Party nominee and published poet who has served 20 years on the James Island Public Service District Commission. Platt previously ran for the District 1 seat as a Democrat in 1990, and this time around, he's running on a platform that includes universal healthcare, protection of at-risk environmental resources, and disengagement from non-defensive wars (read Platt's City Paper profile here).
Whether District 1 turns out to be an insane asylum or a republic, a progressive stronghold or solid-red GOP territory, it is receiving intense scrutiny from national political elites, wonks, and newshounds. Please, everyone, don't do anything embarrassing ... again.
The special election will take place Tues. May 7. To find your polling place, visit bit.ly/10nBZzm.