Next week’s special election to fill a South Carolina congressional seat has become a referendum on Mark Sanford. But what about the other person in the race, Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, who so far remains the nation’s best stealth candidate? Eager to avoid discussion of issues, her handlers are no doubt pleased that few know much about her beyond her family ties — she is the sister of Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert — and her statement that she wants new jobs for her Charleston-based district.
While Colbert Busch is a mystery, voters know more than they want to about Mark Sanford. He’s the former governor who in 2009 made a hash of his last 18 months in office by slipping out of the country for a liasion with his Argentinian lover. The scandal ended his marriage to his wife, Jenny, and shredded his credibility. His reputation took another hit this month when court records leaked from the couple’s divorce proceedings indicated that his wife has charged him with trespassing in her home. He says he was merely visiting one of his sons who was home alone watching the Super Bowl, but the incident has sent his negatives with female voters soaring and prompted national Republican groups to state publicly that they will not financially support Sanford’s campaign. He is being outspent on TV by Colbert Busch, whose ads brand her as thoroughly bland: the acceptable “moderate” alternative to the tempestuous Sanford. But the Republican tilt of the district (Mitt Romney won it by 18 points last year) and Sanford’s volunteer army still give the GOP a decent chance of prevailing in a low-turnout race.
The local and national media haven’t delved into Colbert Busch beyond her platitudes, and so far she’s avoided being tagged with any liberal labels. Her success at flying under the radar may serve as a model for other Democratic candidates in 2014. She plans to participate in only one debate during three months of campaigning. Some 500 of her pre-campaign tweets have been airbrushed away but thanks to the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation have been returned to the public record. In them, her favorite topics include “backing equal rights for our LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender] friends” and supporting President Obama’s proposed hikes in the minimum wage. Regarding Obamacare, she mocks its Republican opponents: “GOP Logic: Providing health care to all Iraqis is sound public policy. Providing health care to all Americans is socialism.”
South Carolina is the least unionized state in the country, but Colbert Busch 1.0 was a big fan of unions, even tweeting that she wanted the support of the AFL-CIO. Unions opposed Boeing’s plans to build a new plant in right-to-work South Carolina, but Colbert showed no misgivings about seeking union support: She eagerly accepted donations from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, who tried to use the National Labor Relations Board to block Boeing’s move. “The voices of the union and all unions need to be lifted up,” she declared in a video she sent to union leaders as she prepared to run. “Nobody is recognizing that, and I promise to be that voice for you. Know that I hear you. Know that I’m working closely with your team.” Tara Servatius, a talk-show host and columnist for Charleston’s City Paper, concludes: “Bottom line, Elizabeth 1.0, the deleted version, is a hard-core liberal Democrat.”
It’s small wonder, then, that in a conservative district, debates are on the bottom of her to-do list. An AARP debate that was going to be televised? Can’t make it. An NAACP debate? Nope. The Rotary Club of Charleston? A conflict. CNN? Not going to happen. The only debate will be held on April 29, at the Citadel, and last just 75 minutes.
During the debate, no doubt someone will bring up Sanford’s head-shaking personal choices, and they should. But if the journalist-inquisitors finally ask Colbert Busch to clarify where she stands on key state and national issues, beyond scripted sound bites, they should also ask about Governor Sanford’s controversial and bold record as South Carolina’s governor and as a congressman before that.
His style wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but it was the opposite of Colbert Busch’s shape-shifting: You always knew where Sanford stood. He made himself famous for his unremitting war on pork, even though Republicans controlled the legislature. He once drove the point home by carrying two squealing pigs into the state capitol. Typically, he vetoed 100 bills a year (though his fellow Republicans frequently overrode him). One year, he vetoed the entire state budget.
Sanford’s record shows a commitment to innovative policy ideas: expanding school choice, a phase-out of the state income tax, and transparency reforms. One key achievement was enacting a voucher-based state Medicaid reform — a model for overhauling entitlement programs for the 21st century.
As a member of Congress in the 1990s, Sanford showed no interest in becoming a permanent fixture in Washington. He slept in his office and commuted home every weekend. He ran on a self-imposed term limit and, unlike some others, actually honored it by returning home to run for governor in 2002.
Voters have a fundamental choice to make in South Carolina. Everyone agrees that Mark Sanford is flawed, though many voters have forgiven a lot over the years, if we recall the public record. Last month, before the trespassing revelations, I was critical of his candidacy because of his heavy political baggage. I wrote that “the national party appears asleep to the dangers of the South Carolina special election.”
But voters have often been forgiving of a leader’s personal failings if they believe his public record outweighs the negatives. Think of deadly driver Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts and serial plagiarist Joe Biden in Delaware. The special election next week will be a test between an exasperating but principled candidate with a long public record and a nice newcomer to politics who has gone out of her way not to discuss issues in any depth and who is campaigning under a cloak of ideological darkness, abetted by a compliant and unquestioning media.
Seeing whom voters prefer will give us an interesting window on our times.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.