Two clear winners emerged from May 7’s special election in South Carolina’s first congressional district.
Marshall Clement “Mark” Sanford Jr., the Palmetto State’s former Republican governor, rose phoenix-like to reclaim his one-time House seat amid the flames of a failed marriage and the ashes of an incendiary personal life. The stalwart, free-market Republican defeated Elizabeth Colbert Busch, sister of Comedy Central “anchor” Stephen Colbert, 54 percent to her 45. Sanford tomorrow will be sworn in to replace former representative Tim Scott, whom Republican governor Nikki Haley elevated to the Senate post that Jim DeMint vacated when he took over the Heritage Foundation from retiring founder Ed Feulner. In this unusual game of musical chairs, conservatives retained all the furniture.
Also triumphant was my old friend Heather Higgins, CEO of Independent Women’s Voice. The Manhattan-based philanthropist and conservative activist was among the few who backed Sanford with an independent expenditure. Her efforts likely were a secret of the 52-year-old’s success. Once again, Higgins used philosophically solid, issue-based campaign communications to elect a conservative candidate. Her convincing and cost-effective win last Tuesday, like others she has scored, contrasts starkly with the magic potions for defeat cooked up by more prominent, profligate Republican operatives.
Aided by conservative political strategist William W. Pascoe III, another friend of mine since the Caesar-salad days of the Reagan administration, Higgins and IWV sponsored an approximately $250,000 independent expenditure aimed at returning Sanford to the House seat that he held from 1995 to 2001, before his two gubernatorial terms. Rather than a Romneyesque/American Crossroads-like “I’m not the Democrat” message, IWV focused specifically on public-policy themes designed to educate and motivate Republicans and sympathetic independents.
Before IWV entered the race, Sanford was enduring revelations that he had visited his son at his ex-wife’s home. While that sounded unremarkable, it happened to violate a no-trespassing clause in the former couple’s divorce agreement. This news rocked Sanford’s campaign. The National Republican Congressional Committee’s toes froze, and its checkbook snapped shut like a polar-bear trap. Washington’s GOP establishment went Arctic on Sanford. He soon was nine percentage points behind Colbert Busch in this heavily Republican district.
With no major national resources behind Sanford, IWV concluded that there were forward-thinking, strategic reasons to fight for him.
“We were concerned about the psychological/morale aspect of a Colbert Busch victory,” Higgins and Pascoe explained in a May 8 Politico post-mortem. Liberals, they added, “would have crowed that they just defeated a former governor of a very Republican state and proclaimed continued mandates and momentum from 2012 . . . a Sanford loss could have made liberal efforts to recruit good candidates easier, and made conservative efforts to recruit good candidates harder.”
Higgins and Pascoe also wanted to see if a largely neglected issue could be revived to move voters Rightward in a tough race.
“Strategically, and particularly after our frustrating inability in 2012 to persuade Republican campaigns or any of the large aggregating outside groups to use ObamaCare as an issue against liberals,” Higgins and Pascoe wrote, “we wanted to see if the health law remained as powerful an issue as we believe it continues to be.”
Before going on air, IWV spent four days communicating (a far better word, by the way, than the wretched “messaging”) with 10,000 likely voters in Republican and independent households. IWV’s subsequent survey showed that, among IWV’s targets, Colbert Busch’s favorable/unfavorable rating slid to 40 percent favorable, 39 unfavorable, versus 44/36 among a control group. The test group also was 17 points likelier to cheer Sanford after learning that a Colbert Busch–connected enterprise received $43 million from Obama’s stimulus and created only 134 jobs. (Cost: $320,895 per-new position.)
However, Obamacare was the theme that really stirred public opinion.
Among IWV’s control group, Sanford lagged Colbert Busch 45 percent to her 48. But voters who learned that Sanford signed IWV’s Obamacare-repeal pledge — and that Colbert-Busch refused to do so — preferred Sanford 63 percent to 30. This 36-point pro-Sanford swing gave IWV its chief issue. It also confirmed the continuing power of an Obamacare-repeal message among voters who never liked this law and now grow increasingly disenchanted as its warts emerge from beneath a blanket of “reformist” make-up.
Obamacare’s dangers and the joys of its repeal then appeared in both TV commercials that IWV aired as well as one of two newspaper ads, a live phone call, and one of three non-advocacy “quiz calls” in which voters tested their knowledge about facts relevant to the candidates’ positions.
IWV sponsored an election-eve print ad in the Charleston Post & Courier. “We are your mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, co-workers, neighbors, and friends,” it read. “We stand on principle. We vote on the issues. Tomorrow’s election is vital to the future of our country, and given the choice before us, we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We support Mark Sanford. Please vote Mark Sanford tomorrow.”
The ad acknowledged Sanford’s imperfections without wallowing in them. Having 209 prominent local women sign this high-profile pitch for the GOP nominee helped dilute any “Sanford is bad for women” feelings that lingered about this race.
Unlike the organizational meltdown that ensnared Mitt Romney’s ticket, IWV’s effective election-day ground game helped turn these messages into action. IWV used get-out-the-vote phone calls to remind citizens of this special election’s importance. This steered pro-Sanford voters to the polls.
All told, IWV spent about $160,000 on broadcast and cable TV and roughly $90,000 on newspaper ads and phone banks. According to media-tracking services, pro-Sanford broadcasting outlays by his campaign, the South Carolina GOP, and IWV totaled $516,567. Colbert Busch and her allies nearly tripled that sum with $1,501,080 on TV and radio.
So, what happened?
Sanford beat Colbert Busch by nine points.
It wasn’t even close.
Fifteen percent of the district’s voters made up their minds in the campaign’s closing week. “These late-deciding voters broke 70-22 percent for [Sanford] — an unheard-of feat for a scandal-tarred virtual incumbent,” Pascoe explained in a May 12 RealClearPolitics after-action report. “That +48 point advantage in the final week simply swamped Colbert Busch.” Pascoe added that “there was a silver bullet in terms of persuading the remaining undecideds to vote for Sanford: ObamaCare, and Colbert Busch’s refusal to sign a pledge to work to repeal it.”
Conservative campaign managers should memorize Pascoe’s next observation.
Based on a GEB International survey of 400 respondents who voted in the special election (with an error margin of +/- 5 percent), “female voters were more likely to cite ObamaCare as the number one reason for voting for Sanford than were men — 15 percent for men, 23 percent for women,” Pascoe wrote. “In virtually every congressional district in the nation, female voters outnumber male voters; pro-repeal candidates would be wise to seek female support by highlighting their opposition to ObamaCare.” Signing IWV’s repeal pledge — which few, if any, Democrats would do — may be GOP/conservative candidates’ most promising method to distinguish themselves from their liberal/Democrat rivals on this topic.
Sanford’s triumph is just the latest win for Higgins and IWV, which many of the GOP establishment’s “big boys” love to overlook. In spite of the Right’s disappointments last November, IWV helped elect Republican senators Ted Cruz of Texas, Nebraska’s Deb Fischer, and Arizona’s Jeff Flake. IWV also boosted House Republicans Dan Benishek of Michigan, Arkansas’s Tom Cotton, North Carolina’s Richard Hudson, Ohio’s Bill Johnson, Iowa’s Steve King, and Virginia’s Scott Rigell.
Heather Higgins, the increasingly effective chief of Independent Women’s Voice, has emerged as the antipode of Karl Rove: a svelte, principled woman who wins elections.