HILTON HEAD — The 2002 gubernatorial primary proved Mark Sanford was good on TV. Really good.
The Charleston Republican didn’t focus on grass-roots organizing, phone banks or other traditional campaign tactics. Instead, Sanford bet it all on TV ads in which he pitched eloquently and simply to voters.
The advertising blitz proved key in slicing through a crowded, seven-candidate GOP primary field, blowing past then-Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler in the GOP runoff and landing Sanford in the governor’s office.
Fast forward to today.
Without his TV advantage, some of the state’s politicos question whether Sanford can win his old congressional seat back Tuesday.
Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch and national Democrats are outspending Sanford on TV by an estimated four-to-one margin, according to S.C. political strategists.
Colbert Busch and her national Democratic allies are reminding voters of Sanford’s past problems — his ethics fines, extramarital affair, constant bickering with members of his own party while governor, and the Republican-led effort that urged Sanford to resign from office when he was governor.
To counteract that blitz, Sanford must get his supporters to the polls Tuesday, particularly in a special election expected to have low turnout, say the state’s strategists.
Some question whether Sanford has the cash to do that after the national Republican Party pulled out of the race.
As Colbert Busch and her allies fill voters’ mailboxes with anti-Sanford pieces daily, only a handful of pieces have gone out supporting Sanford.
New polling gives further reason for pause.
A new poll, released Thursday by a Republican firm, shows Sanford and Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch tied.
Both campaigns acknowledge the race is close in a district that, typically, would go to the Republican without much of a fight.
National Republicans bow out
On a recent trip to Charleston, former S.C. Republican Party chairman Katon Dawson counted congressional TV ads.
“For every one of (Sanford’s) commercials, I saw six against him,” Dawson said. “It was unbelievable.”
“(Sanford) was always the one who could outspend you, always the one who had the cash to make his case on TV. Now, the tables have been turned, and he’s feeling what it’s like to be outspent,” Dawson added.
Typically, candidates can rely on the state party to help them win voters.
In both 2002 and 2006, the S.C. Republican Party, under Dawson’s leadership, hired workers and rounded up thousands of workers to knock on doors, phone voters, plant yard signs and do other work to get Sanford and other Republicans elected. The party also blasted out mail pieces.
Money from the National Republican Congressional Committee and other national Republican groups made that work possible.
“Both times, (Sanford) had a solid ground game. He inherited it both times,” Dawson said, adding he is not sure if Sanford is aware of the ground games launched on his behalf.
This time around, a similar operation for Sanford would have been hard to duplicate because, in mid-April, the National Republican Congressional Committee said it would not spend more money on the former governor’s behalf. That blow came after Sanford’s ex-wife, Jenny Sanford, claimed her ex-husband trespassed onto her property and repeatedly has done so.
“I would bet (Sanford) intended to run this typical sort of Sanford air war, to appeal to the masses, to look into the camera with passion, which he does so well, and overpower the competition through that medium,” said Walt Whetsell, a S.C. Republican strategist. “But, with the way the TV is turning out, I really hope his campaign has devoted some significant resources (to turn out voters).”
Sanford campaign officials said they never based success on help from any outside group and are confident in their campaign’s ground game.
“You don’t organize a campaign based on what some other group may or may not do,” said Joel Sawyer, Sanford’s spokesman.
Sawyer declined to give details on Sanford’s ground game. But, he said, “We have had some incredibly aggressive voter contact goals and, with the help of volunteers from across the district, we have met or exceeded every one of those goals to date.”
The S.C. Republican Party has put $250,000 into the race, said party chairman Chad Connelly. The money went to mail, phone banks and TV ads, among other things, he added.
Connelly said the National Republican Party was providing little assistance to Sanford before it pulled out.
"We didn’t see them do anything anyway,” he said. “We had gotten the ground game together."
Meanwhile, Colbert Busch’s team claims to have the money, the organization — and the innovation — to win.
Dick Harpootlian, chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party, said he is amazed by the amount of technology being used on Colbert Busch’s behalf.
It’s worlds away from the technology used as recently as 2008 to elect President Barack Obama, said Harpootlian, who worked on the ground in both of Obama’s presidential wins.
“The sophistication of the targeting and the messaging that is possible today, compared to just a few years ago, is amazing,” Harpootlian said. “You don’t knock on every door. You knock only on the doors where you may possibly convince a voter. It’s not the old-timey knock on every door, like we used to do.
“Of course, the technology is just a piece of it. You can’t do it if you don’t have a good candidate, a good message. And we’ve got that, too.”
One of Obama’s field organizers who worked in Virginia is in South Carolina, helping the Colbert Busch campaign. Also lending a hand are the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the S.C. Democratic Party.
It’s likely that coalition is replicating parts of President Barack Obama’s 2008 ground game, which netted him 44 of the state’s 46 counties over rival Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary.
Young field organizers organized about 13,000 volunteers on primary day, the Obama campaign revealed after the win. That worked out to be one volunteer canvassing the state for every 23 voters who cast a ballot for Obama, according to The Washington Post.
The Colbert Busch campaign anticipates higher-than-normal turnout for this special election.
This past week, campaign workers and volunteers knocked on about 53,000 doors. They plan to knock on thousands more before Tuesday, said James Smith, Colbert Busch’s spokesman.
Since the election began, the campaign has called voters in their homes more than 250,000 times. The campaign also is using an online “call tool,” which allows its volunteers to log into the campaign’s website from any location and access voter phone numbers.
Sanford’s campaign points out that TV is just one of the former governor’s assets.
“He is also incredibly good when talking to voters one-on-one,” said Sawyer, Sanford’s spokesman. “And we’re spending a lot of time doing it.”
Sanford is also a known entity to voters. His track record of saying no to spending and government growth won him the GOP’s runoff.
The district leans Republican, giving Sanford another built-in advantage that Democrats aren’t sure they can overcome, even with a solid ground game and technology.
“It’s going to be close. He certainly is the presumptive winner,” Harpootlian said.
Andy Shain of The State contributed to this report