HILTON HEAD — For the first time in decades, Julie Bell of Hilton Head Island might sit out an election and not vote.
“I’m 50 years old and I always vote. I believe it’s important,” said Bell, a Republican activist and former member of the Beaufort County School Board who has decided not to support GOP nominee Mark Sanford in his bid for the 1st Congressional District seat. “But I never had such a moral conflict before on supporting the Republican candidate.
“My vote is a precious thing, and I will not vote for someone who is not worthy of my trust. I just don’t trust that (Sanford) is an honest man. I just don’t want him representing me. There’s too much suspicion.”
Some female voters like Bell weren’t sold on supporting Sanford to begin with, based in part on his extramarital affair and some of his decisions from his time in Congress and as governor.
But a trespassing charge filed by his ex-wife, former first lady Jenny Sanford — a best-selling author and popular figure in the state, according to polling — has swayed some to stay home May 7, when Sanford faces Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch.
That could pose a problem in a special election, when turnout typically is low, making each vote precious.
What’s more, S.C. women vote in higher numbers than men — casting about 55 percent of the vote in recent statewide elections.
In the most recent general election in 2010, women represented nearly 55 percent of voters in both Beaufort and Charleston counties, according to the S.C. Election Commission.
Sanford still some women’s choice
That’s not to say Sanford’s doesn’t have support among women.
“Most people that I’ve talked to see it as an unfortunate personal issue that is between he and Jenny,” said Barbara Nielsen, a former state superintendent of education who served as an adviser to Sanford and endorsed him in the Republican runoff.
“When people go in to vote, they are going to vote based on the state of the economy. They’re going to look at why government is growing so big,” she said, adding she doubts Sanford meant any harm when he went to Jenny Sanford’s home Feb. 4 and entered without her permission. “The issues of spending, of the economy, of foreign policy, those are still the issues in this campaign.”
Sanford has said he was there to watch the Super Bowl with their 14-year-old son while Jenny Sanford was out.
“I do not think it entered his mind (that) to go watch a football game would be considered trespassing,” Nielsen said.
In court filings, Jenny Sanford has said the incident is part of a pattern of her ex-husband entering her home, despite a divorce settlement that forbids it. She has also reported other violations of the divorce settlement, including his failure to make a $5,000 annual payment for one of their son’s college education and failing to carry adequate insurance on Coosaw Plantation, his family farm in northern Beaufort County where the couple’s four sons visit.
Sanford’s campaign is attempting to move beyond the incident, scheduling a five-day districtwide tour starting Monday and renewing its focus on Democratic rival Colbert Busch as a debate dodger who has signed on for only one debate.
“As much as the media likes to continue sensationalizing private family matters, we believe this race will be decided on the issues and on the contrast between candidates,” said Joel Sawyer, Sanford’s spokesman, when asked about Sanford’s chances of appealing to female voters after the trespassing charge. “Gov. Sanford’s record of working to cut debt and deficits and his strong record on job growth, compared to his opponent’s belief in big government, labor unions, and being another vote for Speaker Pelosi.”
Polling: Fewer women than men approve of Sanford
Polling shows that, even before the trespassing charge, fewer women than men held a favorable opinion of the former governor and congressman.
A March 26 poll by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning polling firm, shows 37 percent of general-election voters had a favorable opinion of Sanford, compared to 32 percent of women. Fifty-six percent of men polled held an unfavorable opinion, compared to 59 percent of women.
A similar gap between men and women was found in January and February polling conducted for the John Kuhn campaign, a rival Republican who lost to Sanford in the March GOP primary.
Although the difference is only a few percentage points, that can make a big difference in special-election races, “which are so turnout driven,” according to Walt Whetsell, a consultant on the Kuhn campaign who also consulted on newly elected U.S. Rep. Tom Rice’s congressional campaign. “So in that respect, it’s significant.”
But Whetsell isn’t convinced the trespassing charge means Sanford’s campaign is in trouble.
A lot, he said, will depend on whether there are other revelations in the final two weeks of the race that raise more questions about Sanford’s judgment.
“Whether this is a small speed bump or a large barricade on Sanford’s road to redemption will be determined by the facts of this particular incident,” Whetsell said. “If it turns out that it is, like (Sanford) suggests, a minor miscommunication and no other details emerge, no contradictions are brought forth, no other incidents come to light, I think voters will forgive him — again,” Whetsell said. “But if something else comes out, I think he has a problem.”
The Colbert Busch effect
Meanwhile, Colbert Busch and national Democratic groups are pushing the message that Sanford has not done a good job of representing women in South Carolina.
Earlier this month, the Charleston businesswoman accused him of hiring few women for his paid executive staff when he was first elected governor and paying them a smaller average salary than male employees.
“Sadly, my opponent has long opposed fairness in the workplace for women, and even paid women on his staff less than men,” Colbert Busch said this month. “When he was in Congress, he did not support legislation that would protect women against discrimination in the workplace, especially by voting against the Violence Against Women Act, Women’s Educational Equity Act, vocational training for women and the SBA Women’s Business Center Program.”
In 2000, Sanford, then a congressman, was one of three House members to vote against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, a nearly $4 billion bill for programs including shelters, sexual-assault prevention, and education and training for judges.
Sanford’s campaign has said he voted no because he believes the increase in spending should not be paid for by tapping the Social Security Trust Fund or increasing the deficit. They add that Sanford advocated for and signed two bills increasing penalties for those convicted of domestic violence and providing other assistance for victims.
National Democratic groups are making more direct attacks about Sanford’s extramarital affair and record-setting ethics fines he paid for misuse of the state plane and campaign violations.
A mailer and TV ad by House Majority PAC, a group working to win back the House Majority for Democrats, accuses Sanford of a “taxpayer-fueled spending spree” during his time in office by spending $400,000 for trips to France, China and Argentina. An accompanying mailer, sent to voters’ homes this week, shows the legs of a man and woman locked in a seductive tango with a description on the back of the mailer about his international travel.
One economic-development trip included a stop in Argentina, during which Sanford visited his lover, Maria Belen Chapur, to whom he is now engaged. Sanford refunded the state the money spent for the Argentina portion of the trip.
He has characterized the violations as minor — many of them because he flew first class instead of coach — and contends he could have been cleared of them had he chosen to fight them. An attorney for the S.C. Ethics Committee that brought the charges has disagreed.
Sanford in trouble?
But Sanford’s personal woes and work to highlight them won’t translate into votes for Colbert Busch, Republican political strategists say.
It more likely means disenchanted voters stay home — a situation that could be just as harmful to his campaign.
“Voters have already made up their minds about Mark Sanford’s personal life, and he still won the primary by 13 points,” said Luke Byars, an S.C. Republican strategist. “The real issue in this election is ‘out of control’ government spending. Fortunately for Mark Sanford, most women want to cut government just as much as most men do.”
Bell, of Hilton Head, said she will not vote for Colbert Busch.
“I can’t in my heart vote for him, but at the same time, I can’t vote for her. I’m not a Democrat,” she said.