Three lessons learned from Mark Sanford’s win

Former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford is his state’s new representative in the House. So what does his comeback win say about the electoral process?

marksanfordThe commentators were out in full force on Tuesday night when it quickly became apparent Sanford would easily defeat Elizabeth Colbert Busch in a runoff election.

Columnist Alex Isenstadt from Politico summed up much of the national coverage.

“South Carolinians may not love former Gov. Mark Sanford. They may still have a bad taste in their mouths after his governorship. They may even wonder whether they can entirely trust him. But in the end, they decided he was as good as they were going to get,” Isenstadt said.

And it seems the electoral process still works in South Carolina, despite the highly unusual circumstances of the Sanford-Colbert Busch race.

It was dissatisfaction in the U.S. Senate that opened the door for Sanford’s political comeback. Jim DeMint, the powerful tea party leader from South Carolina, quit the Senate last year to take a much-higher-paying job at the Heritage Foundation.

The Constitution allows a state to empower its governor, in this case, Nikki Haley, to appoint someone to replace a senator, via the 17th Amendment. Haley picked Representative Tim Scott to replace DeMint.

That left an opening in the U.S. House delegation for South Carolina. The Constitution in Article 1, Section 2, also says that House openings need to be filled by a direct election, and not by a governor or a state legislature. Haley had the power to order the election.

The winner in last night’s race will serve out Scott’s term in the House and stand for re-election in 2014.

Sanford started as an underdog in the race, but easily beat Colbert Busch, the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert. Here are three takeaways from the experience:

1. Celebrity doesn’t matter that much in politics. Both candidates had a fair share of national attention. Sanford became a national figure after he was believed to be hiking on the Appalachian Trail as governor, when he was actually in Argentina seeing his mistress. Colbert Busch’s brush with fame was tied to her brother. In the end, it was a local election.

2. Polls don’t matter much, either. An early poll from the Democratic-leaning group PPP had Colbert Busch up by nine points on Sanford two weeks ago—after the former governor got into a trespassing dispute with his ex-wife. Another poll from PPP had Sanford with a one-point lead the day before the election. The final margin was closer to nine points for Sanford.

3. The democratic process works. Regardless of how you feel about Sanford or Colbert Busch, the election was carried out quickly to fill a vacant House seat. There are a lot of key budget votes and other measures coming up in Congress, and the people of South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District will have a representative.

How Sanford will vote in Congress and work with the GOP leadership in Washington is another matter.

Speaker John Boehner and the national Republican Party leadership were not supportive of his campaign. But other figures, like Haley and Senators Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul, backed Sanford.

In the end, Sanford used old-fashioned campaign tactics like barnstorming, and linking Colbert Busch to national Democrats in a highly Republican area to achieve his comeback.

It is a precursor to the 2014 midterm elections, where the GOP faces its own divisions. In 2010, the tea party wave shook up the party and showed that candidates didn’t need national support to win U.S. Senate and House elections.

This is particularly important in the U.S. Senate, where 21 of 35 seats up for grabs in 2014 are currently controlled by Democrats. However, in seven of the 21 states with Democrats in the Senate, the GOP won electoral votes in 2012.

The Republicans need to gain six Senate seats to gain full control of Congress.

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.

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