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All politics is local: Colbert Busch culls GOP support from friends

Elizabeth Colbert Bush, the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert, shares a laugh with reporters after voting in Mount Pleasant, S.C., on Tuesday, March 19, 2013.
Elizabeth Colbert Bush, the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert, shares a laugh with reporters after voting in Mount Pleasant, S.C., on Tuesday, March 19, 2013.Bruce Smith / AP

A House race pitting a liberal comedian’s sister against a strict, conservative opponent might seem like a strange place for a GOP donor to turn blue.

But at least 16 donors to Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the Democratic nominee for Congress in South Carolina’s 1st congressional district, have also given recently to a Republican – in some cases, one of the 16 Republican candidates vying for their party’s nomination to challenge Colbert Busch in the May 7 general election.

But when asked why they decided to switch – or in some cases, straddle – sides this time, these donors spoke not of a sudden political conversion, but rather the desire to give a little help to their friend Lulu, as those who know Colbert Busch call her. 

Elizabeth Colbert Bush, the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert, shares a laugh with reporters after voting in Mount Pleasant, S.C., on Tuesday, March 19, 2013.Bruce Smith / AP

The mantra “all politics is local” rings true for John LaVerne, the owner of Charleston’s Bulldog Tours, which offers ghost walks and culinary tours of the historic city. Usually a Republican voter, LaVerne gave his friend Colbert-Busch $250 after donating the same amount to Mitt Romney’s campaign in May 2012.

LaVerne said the Democratic nominee “blew me away” when they met three years ago, and he has been telling his Republican friends that “she’s the smartest candidate out there.”

Another connection: Colbert Busch’s daughter works for LaVerne as Bulldog’s operations manager.

“[Colbert Bush] raised her kids by herself, all three of them, and they’re all three phenomenal people,” he said. “That says a lot.”

Despite the attention to her candidacy aided by her brother’s celebrity, Colbert Busch is considered an underdog against either of her would-be Republican opponents, former Gov. Mark Sanford or Curtis Bostic. A runoff GOP primary will decide between Sanford and Bostic, but the district is solidly Republican.

Still, Colbert Busch can point to some of these crossover voters as evidence of the kind of bipartisan appeal she would need to win this special election to fill the former House seat of now-Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.

Thomas Doyle, the owner of Palmetto Carriage Works, feels the same way as LaVerne about Colbert Busch – she’s his mother’s best friend and was his confirmation mother at the Cathedral at St. John the Baptist, which is why, out of “my loyalty to Lulu,” he donated $500 to her campaign.

Politically, though, Doyle said they couldn’t be further apart, which is why he voted last Tuesday for Republican Teddy Turner, son of CNN mogul Ted, who came in fourth with 8 percent in the primary.

Doyle said politicians don’t affect him much, so if it turns out his donation helps her win, “more power to her.”

Even Doyle’s vote for Turner was shaped by personal relationships: his wife works at Charleston Collegiate School, where Turner is an economics teacher. “So I really didn’t have much choice there,” he said, laughing.

That’s just the way local races in South Carolina work, Charleston lawyer Mark Tanenbaum said.

“A lot of people know that when they have a friendship with candidates, you contribute when you’re asked to,” he said. “We all see each other, know each other, and feel an obligation to a certain extent so long as in the long run it’s not going to defeat our ideals.”

Tanenbaum, a Democrat, donated to both Colbert Busch, whom he supports, and one of the Republicans who sought to oppose her, state Rep. Chip Limehouse, who came in seventh. 

“I’ve known Chip Limehouse for quite some time. He’s a friend of mine; he asked me if I would give him some money just for the primary. He knew that if he got into the general election that I was not able to support him,” Tanenbaum said. 

Charles Way, president of real estate firm The Beach Company, gave $1,000 to Limehouse and $500 to Colbert Busch less than a month later. “They’re both good friends of mine,” he said, adding that his actual vote would remain “between me and the polling place.” 

The party-flipping goes both ways: one Charleston businessman, a lifelong Democrat, gave $1,000 to Tim Scott’s congressional campaign in 2010 after Scott sat him down personally, telling him he would be an “independent thinker” in the House of Representatives.

Scott, now a Senate appointee, turned out to be a “tremendous disappointment,” the businessman said. So by 2013 he was ready to make a contribution to Colbert Busch, with whom he was already friendly.

“I had known Lulu and thought very highly of her but had not thought of her in a political context before,” he said.

Even if Colbert Busch makes the most out of her donations, from Republican friends and others, she’s still running in a district that Romney won by 10 percent in 2012 – a reality that Robert New, a Romney donor who also gave to Colbert Busch, acknowledged.

“There are certainly some people on the waterfront who are unhappy [with Sanford],” said New, the owner of a Charleston waterfront business who became friends with Colbert Busch when she worked for a shipping company. New said many port businesspeople were turned off by Sanford’s anti-earmark stance that he took to Washington during his first congressional tenure in the 1990’s.

“But,” he added, “I still think she’s an outside shot.”