Democrats Should Be Careful What They Wish For in South Carolina

By ceding the special election to Colbert Busch, Republicans stand to gain a better 2014 candidate.

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Democratic congressional candidate Elizabeth Colbert Busch speaks to reporters outside a nursing home in Charleston, S.C., on Thursday, April 4, 2013.
Democratic congressional candidate Elizabeth Colbert Busch speaks to reporters outside a nursing home in Charleston, S.C., on Thursday, April 4, 2013.

Democrats are thrilled. Not only is Democratic candidate Elizabeth Colbert Busch leading former Republican governor Mark Sanford by 9 percent in the latest PPP survey for the special election in South Carolina's 1st congressional district, but Sanford's comeback campaign has completely collapsed.

Last week, news broke that Sanford is scheduled to appear in court on May 9 to defend against a trespassing charge lodged by his ex-wife in February. Not long after, the National Republican Congressional Committee withdrew its support and a fundraiser that was scheduled for this week in Washington was scotched.

Making matters worse, Sanford's "please, let me explain" campaign has become all too reminiscent of a GOP embarrassment from the 2006 cycle, Don Sherwood. In short, all signs point to Colbert Busch becoming South Carolina's second Democrat in the U.S. House.

But as election watchers understand, Colbert Busch is also likely to have a very short congressional career. Between the district's heavy Republican leaning (Cook Partisan Voting Index is R+11) and the historical undertow that tends to sink the incumbent president's party in midterm elections, Colbert Busch has scant chances of winning reelection in 2014.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Even though Democrats know this, they're pushing hard to elect Colbert Busch now. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a Democratic super PAC (House Majority PAC), and a progressive group, VoteVets, have all spent large sums on the race. Colbert Busch's campaign has also produced a racially-charged 60-second radio ad aimed at ginning up turnout among African-Americans.

Why put in overtime in what is likely to soon become a lost cause? One word: spin.

Democrats are hoping that this high-profile win will give them the credibility to claim that they not only have the momentum heading into 2014, but also that Republican fecklessness persists – even in "deep red" areas of the country. With President Obama's help, they're trying to bluff their way into creating a Democratic House majority.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

But what Democrats don't seem to realize is that their strategy is likely to backfire badly. Aside from setting expectations far above what they're likely to achieve in the midterms, they're hindering their efforts to even reach their goal. By turning Colbert Busch into a Hollywood-connected party "superstar" with a national base of supporters, they'll be forced to raise and spend money on her race in 2014. They'll also find it more difficult to get the media to focus on the competitive seats when they can write a story (and gain more web clicks) about an embattled "celebrity" incumbent.

By ceding the special election to Colbert Busch, Republicans stand to gain a better 2014 candidate, an "easy" midterm cycle pick-up and an overall weaker opposition. Like punting instead of pursuing a fourth down and one, losing to win is sometimes the smartest play.

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