No thanks to the Washington GOP establishment but former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford is once again Congressman-elect Mark Sanford. In the end it wasn’t even close. Despite the best expectations and fondest hopes of the Democrats, Sanford ended up winning this solidly Republican seat by nine points against Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch who many feared was just moderate enough to win the seat when backed by the much-vaunted Obama machine.
It was, from the start, a national contest – in part because the Democrats hoped to use the race to show that control of the U.S. House of Representatives really is on the line in 2014 but mostly because Sanford has been unable to put what might be termed an interesting private life behind him. Indeed it was just because of Sanford’s checkered marital history that the team of newbies running the National Republican Congressional Committee under Oregon Rep. Greg Walden pulled the chicken switch at the first sign of trouble.
The Democrats wanted the race to be a local race, one that turned on issues central to South Carolina and the personalities of the two candidates involved. And – when the Congressional Committee pulled out, and quietly sent the message to the funding community that the race was essentially hopeless – the Democrats almost got what they wanted. Colbert Busch, who burst on the scene as the sister of Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, surged to a nine point lead in the polls when the race seemed to be turning on Sanford and Sanford alone.
With no national backing, Sanford, who knows the district, was forced to fend for himself until late in the game when groups like the Heather Higgins-led Independent Women’s Voice came in with an effective broadcast and cable ad buy that put the race in the proper context. The race was not just about Sanford vs. Colbert Busch but about Barack Obama. The intervention of the Higgins’s group and a few others renationalized the race, making it about Obamacare and spending and taxes and other issues where the Democrats are clearly on defense outside of the urban clusters that make up the party’s base. It gave Sanford a life that Colbert Busch and the Obama machine could not overcome, which is something national Republicans should be careful attention to going forward if they want to keep the House and pick up the Senate.
Keep the focus on issues, not on personalities, and the GOP can win it all.