In South Carolina Primary, Some Good Theater
Published: March 19, 2013

Voting is under way in South Carolina on Tuesday in what is undoubtedly one of the wildest races for Congress, even for a state that is known for its theatrical politics. The 18 candidates include a disgraced ex-governor, the son of a media mogul and the sister of nationally known comedian.

Ex-Governor Hopes a Lively House Race Is His Comeback Trail (March 5, 2013)
Still, the Congressional primary is most broadly a test to see if Mark Sanford, who left the governorship in 2011 under a cloud from an affair and a famous lie to cover it up, can make his way back into politics.

Over the longer term, what happens in the primary for the First Congressional District will surely set the stage for what many never thought was possible: a chance for a very red state to send a Democrat to Congress.

The narrative will play out in phases. The first chapter will be written on Tuesday as voters whittle down a field of 16 Republicans — and in a separate race, two Democrats — in a primary prompted by its own quirky story line.

Tim Scott, the first Republican African-American that South Carolina has sent to Congress since 1867, had held the seat since 2011.

In December, Senator Jim DeMint announced he was stepping down to take over the conservative Heritage Foundation. Gov. Nikki Haley sent Mr. Scott to replace him, making him the Senate’s only black member. The appointment opened up the Congressional seat that includes Charleston, Hilton Head and some Low Country farmland.

Mr. Sanford, who had held the seat in the 1990s and was regrouping after a divorce and his painful last year in office, said in an interview that he viewed the timing as something of a miracle that came just as he was contemplating what his next move should be.

His strategy, in ads and interviews, has been to first ask for forgiveness for leaving his office unattended for six days as he pursued a woman in Argentina who is now his fiancée. He lied about it, saying he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. Although he finished his term, he faced ethics fines, censure by his party and a divorce from his wife of 21 years, Jenny.

His first ad spoke of finding grace and the god of second chances. His second ad quickly left that theme behind, and hammered home his conservative bone fides, which included being rated by the Cato Institute, a libertarian group, as the most fiscally conservative governor during his tenure.

Tuesday’s vote will likely give some indication of how far forgiveness and fiscal conservatism will go in a part of South Carolina that is Republican, certainly, but populated by relative newcomers (by South Carolina standards) and is more moderate than other parts of the state.

“Repentance works better in the South Carolina Upcountry, where it’s more evangelical,” said Jack Bass, who has written several books about civil rights, the state’s politics and Strom Thurmond, the long-serving senator.

“This is a moderate district,” he said. “It’s the only South Carolina Congressional district that went for Romney in the primary.”

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, won the 2012 primary by 12 points, blocking what at the time seemed an inevitable and easy walk to the presidential nomination for Mitt Romney.

This season, 15 other Republicans in the race with Mr. Sanford have had to run hard in a short period of time to differentiate themselves. The field has spent six weeks attacking one another and targeting Mr. Sanford, with candidates striking notes for their own fiscal conservatism, as well as their own strong families and conservative social and religious values.

Debates and candidate forums were scrums, with some candidates barely getting out a few sentences.

Turnout is expected to be light, with the vote spread around a field so large it is unlikely Mr. Sanford will get the more than 50 percent needed to ensure a place on the final ballot in May.

There is not a political analyst in the state who disagrees that Mr. Sanford will be the top vote-getter. Polls have shown him with at least 30 percent to 40 percent of the vote. The question is how large his percentage will be and who he will face in an April 7 runoff election.

John Kuhn, a former state senator in the current race, points out in an ad that he owns a successful small business, has a deep Christian faith and has married his high school sweetheart. “I am living the American dream,” he said.

But with so many candidates in the race, winning really boils down to having name recognition, said Chip Felkel, a Republican political consultant based in Greenville, S.C., who is not affiliated with any campaign.

Teddy Turner, a political newcomer and the son of media mogul Ted Turner, is hoping name recognition will get him to the runoff. He was one of the first to run ads, and he has spent more than $300,000 on his own campaign, which he said in an interview might cost him about $500,000.

The nonprofit Sunlight Foundation reported that Mr. Sanford has raised about $300,000, with donations from political financiers like David Koch and Foster Friess, who supported Rick Santorum in his bid for the presidency.

Still, many expect more seasoned politicians, including Chip Limehouse and Larry Grooms, to have strong showings because they are both in the Legislature.

The biggest question remains who will challenge Mr. Sanford in the runoff, and whether voters and Republican strategists think he will be the strongest candidate to send into battle against the winner of Tuesday’s Democratic primary.

That race has only two candidates: a quirky conservative candidate named Ben Frasier, who has run in nearly every Congressional election since 1972, and Elizabeth Colbert Busch, on leave from Clemson University, who is also a businesswoman and the sister of the television host Stephen Colbert.

Democratic strategists believe that in the May general election Ms. Colbert Busch could peel off Republican women voters faced with having to chose Mr. Sanford or cross party lines.

To that end, Ms. Colbert Busch, who has raised more than $300,000, has been exploiting the gender gap as often as possible.

Her campaign pointed out that at the polls on Tuesday the candidate was with her mother, Lorna Colbert, who was born the day women could first vote in 1920.