Sanford, Colbert Busch House Race Down to the Wire in South Carolina

Personal stumbles may cause conservative district to slip into Democrat control.

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There's still a chance Mark Sanford could lose his special election House race Tuesday to Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, but experts say the South Carolina conservative holds the edge.

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Sanford, the scandal-ridden former governor and congressman, was the early front-runner in the heavily Republican district in the race to replace Tim Scott after he ascended to the Senate.

But Sanford, whose embarrassing performance resulted in national Republicans pulling their financial support for his candidacy, has had stumbles on the campaign trail - debating a cut-out of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and awkwardly ignoring a charge during a debate his opponent made about how as governor he wasted Palmetto State dollars on his romantic trip to visit his mistress in Argentina while pretending to be hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

 

"This race is too close to call, it's a toss-up right now and that's a surprise," says David Woodard, a Republican political consultant in South Carolina and visiting professor at Southern Methodist University. "If they can beat a former governor in South Carolina, nationally this is a big win for the Democrats."

A recent poll showed Sanford leading by a point, 47 percent to 46 percent over Colbert Busch, despite the fact that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney beat President Barack Obama by 17 points in the district in 2012.

[READ: Sanford, Colbert Busch Square Off in South Carolina Debate]

"Sanford has gotten back into the race by nationalizing it and painting Colbert Busch as a liberal," writes Tom Jensen, a polling analyst with Public Policy Polling in a memo accompanying the results.

A similar survey from two weeks ago had Colbert Busch up by nine points, but Woodard says it's been consistently close and special elections are tough to poll because turnout is so variable.

"Many voters will say, 'I don't like the Democrat because she's a Democrat but I don't like Sanford either, so I'll just go fish,'" he says. "If that happens and turnout is down, it's going to really take away from Sanford. Now I still think he's going to win because he served six years in that office."

The poll from two weeks ago also came at an inopportune time for Sanford, Woodard adds, because a charge of trespassing made by his ex-wife had just been made public and Sanford's handling of it was reminiscent of his post-Argentina trip confession.

"This little response to the trespassing thing had the same ring to it – he's whiny, he looks like he's not mature and I think a lot of people thought this divorce was over and they are realizing they are still throwing rocks at each other," he says.

The two faced off in a debate last week, with Colbert Busch sticking to a fiscally conservative platform, playing up her businesswoman roots and hitting Sanford on local issues. Sanford tried to balance contrition for his past discretions with his record of voting against federal spending.

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Kyle Kondik, a congressional race analyst at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, says Colbert Busch needs many Republicans to vote for her, something that's not very likely to happen.

"All the information I have says it's really close but I favor Sanford in the end because of the district," he says.

Colbert Busch, a businesswoman and sister of famous comedian Stephen Colbert, also might be undone by the Green Party candidate in the race, Eugene Platt, who is pulling about 4 percent of the vote, according to PPP.

"You wonder if [Platt} may end up being a spoiler," Kondik says.

The ramifications of the race are up for dispute, with Woodard saying a Colbert Busch victory significant and Kondik disagreeing.

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"If she can win this race, it's a big feather in their cap from which to build for 2014 in the gubernatorial race," Woodard says, noting the entire South has drifted toward Republicans over the past 20 years, with the exception of congressional districts drawn around black voters. "If they can beat a former governor in South Carolina, nationally this is a big win for the Democrats."