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In South Carolina, Will Sanford Get a Second Chance?

Editor’s Note: Late Tuesday former Gov. Mark Sanford was named the winner of the special election in South Carolina’s 1st congressional district.

This simply isn’t your typical House race.

Comedy Central star Stephen Colbert is involved. So is a life-size cardboard cutout of Nancy Pelosi. But the National Republican Congressional Committee? No, it has stayed away.

And to top it all off: The last major poll of the race had the two candidates separated by only one percentage point.

It’s election day in South Carolina’s first congressional district, and voters will choose either Republican Mark Sanford or Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch to be the House’s newest member, capping off what will surely be one of this off-year’s most contentious and entertaining election campaigns.

House Democrats have piled money into the race, in the hopes that Colbert Busch, in her first foray into politics, can spring the upset in a ruby-red district that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney won easily last November. A Colbert Busch win over Sanford, an embattled former governor, would send a signal that Democrats can be competitive in Republican strongholds in 2014. A Colbert Busch loss, however, would be a warning that their road to a House majority could be steeper than they expected.

The Campaign

Sanford’s struggles as a House candidate go back to his tenure as South Carolina’s governor: He left office in disgrace at the end of his second term, after it was discovered that he left the country for several days in June 2009 to carry on an extramarital affair with a woman from Argentina. On the campaign trail this year, he has portrayed himself as a contrite man asking voters for a second chance at politics, and the strategy allowed him to cobble together enough votes to survive the GOP primary and the primary runoff.

But Sanford’s credibility took another hit after the leak of new court documents in April: They showed that his ex-wife filed suit against him in February, alleging that he had trespassed on her property. While Sanford maintained that his reasons for entering his ex-wife’s home were harmless, the revelation chilled his campaign’s fundraising and even shut down hopes that the National Republican Congressional Committee would financially support his House bid.

The renewed focus on Sanford’s personal troubles also opened the GOP candidate up to a new wave of attacks. House Majority PAC, a superPAC that backs Democrats in House races, came out with ads like “Trust” that hammered the former governor for his past transgressions.

And during Colbert Busch’s one and only debate with Sanford, she “went there,” lambasting the Republican candidate for using state money while carrying on his extramarital affair.

“When we talk about fiscal spending, and we talk about protecting the taxpayers, it doesn’t mean that you take that money that we saved and leave the country for a personal purpose,” Colbert Busch quipped.

Sanford has countered the Democrats’ jabs at his flaws by playing to his district’s conservative electorate, highlighting Colbert Busch’s ties to Democratic interest groups, funders and policymakers. Indeed, groups like House Majority PAC and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are spending six-figure sums on Colbert Busch’s behalf. And some big-name Democrats — Rep. James Clyburn, Rep. John Lewis and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand among them — attended her mid-April D.C. fundraiser, an event headlined by her younger brother, Stephen Colbert (of “Colbert Report” fame).

The former governor put that strategy to work during the debate, calling into question Colbert Busch’s independence from her campaign’s backers.

“When you think about this larger notion of whose voice will be carried,” he said, “will it be Nancy Pelosi’s voice? Will it be a labor union voice?”

Those same themes inspired the Sanford campaign’s “Voices” ad, as well as his mock debate on the campaign trail with a life-size cardboard cutout of the House Democratic leader.

The Homestretch

The National Republican Congressional Committee and most outside groups are still committed to sitting out the race, but there has been a mild uptick in support from high-profile Republicans, both inside and outside the Palmetto State. Last week, he received fundraising help from Nikki Haley, his successor as governor of South Carolina. And over the last two weeks, he’s collected endorsements from Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and his father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, as well as both of South Carolina’s senators, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott (who happens to be the most recent occupant of the seat he hopes to fill).

And Sanford’s polling numbers seem to have improved since the trespass allegation against him was made public in April. The Democratic pollster PPP came out with a survey days after that revelation, and it had a lot of good news for Elizabeth Colbert Busch: She was up by 9 points, and many more respondents had a favorable view of her (56 percent) than of Sanford (38 percent).

But that same firm released its last survey of the race this past Sunday, and it showed that the race has since tightened up dramatically: Sanford was now up by 1 point, and the favorability gap between him and Colbert Busch shrank from 18 points to 7 points.

So a race that has been exciting and unpredictable throughout, with its colorful cast of characters and momentum swings in both directions, looks to be a close one right up to the very end.

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Photo of Elizabeth Colbert Busch, official portrait, courtesy of Colbert-Busch campaign. Photo of Mark Sanford, official portrait for state of South Carolina.

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