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Sanford's success sets stage for S.C. showdown

Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) thanks his fiance and former mistress, Maria Belen Chapur, after his primary win
Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) thanks his fiance and former mistress, Maria Belen Chapur, after his primary winAssociated Press

South Carolina Republican Mark Sanford's comeback is nearly complete. Three years after the former governor was caught cheating on his wife, lying to the public, misusing public funds, and violating state ethics guidelines, Sanford won a congressional special election primary last night.

With all the results in, the former governor easily dispatched GOP rival Curtis Bostic, 57% to 43%, despite the latter's support from right-wing allies, including Rick Santorum, Ann Coulter, and Focus on the Family founder James Dobson. Sanford's win allows him to advance to a general election next month against Elizabeth Colbert Busch (D).

We don't generally expect competitive congressional races in May, but this one will likely be a doozy. This is, to be sure, generally considered a safe district for Republicans -- it was held by Tim Scott before his appointment to the U.S. Senate, and favored Mitt Romney last year by 18 points --- but the far-right's skepticism of Sanford and Colbert Busch's acumen as a candidate make it a contest worth watching.

Indeed, while the Republican is the favorite, his party is clearly worried.

Fellow GOP pols don't like him. Neither do female voters. His campaign is largely an exercise in seeking forgiveness for his transgressions four years ago -- a defensive crouch that makes it tricky to take the fight to Colbert Busch, the sister of late-night comedian Stephen Colbert. [...]

The concern among national Republicans that Colbert Busch could steal the 1st District seat is so real that they're prepared to do whatever it takes to shepherd the former Republican governor to victory -- including dumping cash into the race, sources told POLITICO.

One national GOP official told Politico, "This race is by no means a slam dunk for Republicans. If anyone says they know how this race is going to play out, they're kidding themselves."

This may sound like expectations-setting rhetoric, but in this case, I think it's sincere.

Keep in mind, Public Policy Polling recently found Colbert Busch with a narrow lead over Sanford, 47% to 45%. Colbert Busch benefited from a fairly strong favorability rating, while 58% of voters in the district still don't like the scandal-plagued former governor.

In fairness, I should note that polling a special-election race is notoriously difficult -- it's an enormous challenge determining who's likely to show up to vote -- but the results nevertheless reinforce the perception that this will be a competitive contest.

The former governor's biggest problem is that he has not yet persuaded enough of his skeptics, who haven't forgotten his scandal. It's telling, for example, that South Carolina already has seven Republicans in its congressional delegation, and not one of the seven has endorsed Sanford.

What's more, as some far-right leaders rallied behind the underfunded Bostic in advance of yesterday's primary run-off, and their disgust for Sanford became clear, it became easier to believe many conservative activists may simply stay home next month rather than vote for the former governor.

"The level of concern hinges on a convergence of events," another national GOP official told Politico. "There's a flawed Republican candidate, an interesting candidate on the other side, and it's an unpredictable special election. You've got a circumstance where Republicans could lose the seat. I think if you neutralize one of those three factors, we win. If we fail to neutralize one of those factors, there's a path to defeat."

The election is May 7.