How Mark Sanford staged an unlikely comeback

gsmith@islandpacket.comMay 11, 2013 

— Four years ago, Mark Sanford seemed to be political road kill, with many– including Sanford himself– saying his career was through.

But last Tuesday, Sanford delivered a comeback in the 1st District congressional race that left some politicos scratching their heads and could have some campaign consultants trying to replicate it in the future.

How did the once-disgraced governor become South Carolina’s comeback congressman?

The Pelosi Connection

One of the biggest players in the race never stepped foot in South Carolina, never commented on the race in public and never made a direct donation.

But Sanford’s team made House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., an unpopular figure in South Carolina, the face of Elizabeth Colbert Busch’s campaign.

Colbert Bush took large donations from political action committees associated with national Democrats, as well as headlining fundraisers attended by them.

And when she refused to appear in more than one debate, Sanford himself came up with an unusual but effective strategy – debate a life-size photo of Pelosi instead.

Lashing Colbert Busch to Pelosi in voters’ minds “was a theme that the campaign was emphasizing,” said Joel Sawyer, Sanford’s spokesman. “Outside money coming in from people who wanted Pelosi to have the speakership again – so how do you highlight this tactically?”

Sawyer found a high-resolution photo of Pelosi and took it to a shop to enlarge it. The next day, Sanford was holding a mock debate with the smiling, life-sized cutout.

“Her debate-dodging forced them to come up with a new approach,” S.C. Republican strategist Walt Whetsell said. “And Sanford exploited it masterfully.”

Fourteen days out, the race pivoted from a referendum on Sanford’s personal transgressions to Colbert Busch’s alignment with Pelosi and other national Democrats.

The backs of Sanford’s wooden campaign signs that read, “Sanford saves tax $$,” were spray-painted with a new message. “Don’t let Pelosi buy this race,” read one in sign in Bluffton.

Little push back

With Public Policy Polling indicating Colbert Busch led by as much as 9 percentage points with just weeks to go in the campaign, the Democrat continued to make few public appearances or give few in-depth interviews.

“They made a really bad strategic decision to run the clock out, to hide her,” Whetsell said. “‘Let’s just tread water. Let’s sit tight and not make any mistakes.’ That didn’t work.”

Colbert Busch’s campaign declined to comment for this story.

Her campaign highlighted her disagreement with Obama’s budget proposal and her disavowal of an assault-weapons ban. She was less clear about whether she would work to repeal the new federal health care reform law and would not say if she would support Pelosi for a House leadership position.

“They didn’t do a good job of substantively differentiating her from congressional Democrats,” Sawyer said.

Pocketbook issues

Sanford also banked on his reputation as a budget-conscious congressman and governor.

“A lot of voters, including those who voted for him, don’t like Mark Sanford,” said Charles Bierbauer, dean of the University of South Carolina’s College of Mass Communications and former CNN political reporter. “But voters often choose who to support based on their pocketbooks, what is in their own self-interest.

“They can look past a lot if they believe it benefits them.“

National Democratic groups blasted Sanford in TV ads and mailings for his affair, ethics fines and trespassing allegations by his ex-wife. However, Sanford was able to make his case to voters even after the National Republican Committee bowed out of the race.

“Sorry, NRCC,” tweeted state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, Sanford’s longtime friend and former chief of staff, after Tuesday’s election. ”We won anyway.”

Turnout surprise

Turnout in Tuesday’s special election was 32 percent, or nearly 144,000 voters.

“We never thought turnout would be any higher than around 125,000,“ said Dick Harpootlian, outgoing chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party.

And the voters who turned out were Republicans– not surprising given the district favored Mitt Romney by nearly 20 percentage points in 2012.

“In that district, there just aren’t that many Democrats,” GOP consultant Whetsell said. “So if you have a good turnout, it’s just impossible (for Democrats) to overcome that.“

Sanford spokesman Sawyer said the Democrats also underestimated the former governor’s local political organization.

“We ran a very aggressive ground game with an incredible volunteer operation,” Sawyer said. “I don’t think they counted on us having an aggressive ground game, too.“

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