The race political junkies have been hoping for during the last two months is on.
From the time the filing period closed on the race to replace Tim Scott to represent the First Congressional District, much of the media attention focused on the possibility of a match-up between former Gov. Mark Sanford and Elizabeth Colbert Busch.
Now, it's here.
Colbert Busch’s path to the general election was far easier than Sanford’s. While serious challengers got out of her way, he had to get through a hotly contested primary and then a run-off.
The final step in one of the most unlikely political resurrections could be the most difficult, according to longtime SC political observer Chip Felkel.
“Now the truly hard part kicks in,” Felkel said. “Colbert Busch will have tons of cash from the DCCC, the ads will be harsh, and the appeal must be to those who aren't primary voting activists, but independents.
"This will be a hard-fought general."
Democrats have made little secret of their belief that facing Sanford is the best chance to flip the seat blue. Republicans have countered by noting that SC1 has been firmly red for three decades.
The race will be fought on several fronts. But if there is anything to be gleaned from the 2012 election, it's that numbers matter.
The fact that Sanford is a known-quantity is the main reason why Democrats preferred Sanford to just about any of the other Republicans. He has a record of voting and governing to run against.
But the numbers also are cause for Democratic optimism.
The first number that Team Blue likes is Sanford favorable/unfavorable rating. It’s 34/58 according to the left-leaning Public Policy Polling. Not only is it troubling for Sanford that more than half of those polled viewed him unfavorably, the favorable-unfavorable gap is 24 percentage points, which will be extremely difficult to reverse in the five weeks of the general election. Conversely, Colbert Busch was 45/31.
Those figures are from only one poll so it’s wise to not infer too much, but as a baseline it provides a sense of the uphill climb for Sanford.
The other numbers that may make Democrats hopeful are the results from the election in SC1 last November compared to Tuesday’s results in the Republican run-off.
Now, wait, you say, Mitt Romney won the district easily, by 58 to 40 percent. And Democratic congressional candidate Bobbie Rose lost by 26 percent to Tim Scott. How can that be good for Democrats?
Despite the rout, more than 98,000 people cast votes for her. To be sure many of those just pushed “D” and voted straight party.
And the turnout on May 7 will not be anywhere near the 69 percent that it was in November. More likely, turnout will be in the 20-22 percent range, which means between 90-95,000 people will vote.
But, keep in mind that the total number of people who voted in the Republican run-off on Tuesday between Sanford and Curtis Bostic was 46,071. Those voters are likely all Republicans. With a turnout of 90-95,000 getting 46,071 votes makes the race a 50-50 proposition.
Now, some assumptions, which, admittedly, can be disproved by any number of arguments. But let’s put them forward anyway.
Of those 46,071 voters on Tuesday, some of them voted against Sanford due to his past, as much as they voted for Bostic. How many? That’s impossible to prove. But even if it’s only a 1,000, that’s a significant number. That’s 1,000 Republicans who won’t vote on May 7, which is good for the Democrats.
Getting turnout in a special election is a challenge. So, it is not a stretch to say that everyone who could possibly vote for Sanford (or any Republican) against Colbert Busch has already done so. And that number is 46,071.
Back to Bobbie Rose.
Those 98,000 people who voted for Rose won’t all be coming out to vote for Colbert Busch. But if only half of them do that’s still 49,000 votes, which is more than the 46,071 Republicans who voted on Tuesday.
And adding 46,071 to 49,000 would mean just over 95,000 votes—or a turnout of about 21 percent.
Sanford’s challenge will be getting Republican voters out on May 7 who have not voted yet in either the primary or the run-off. That’s a tall order.
Colbert Busch’s challenge is finding half of those Rose voters but, given the depth of data now available to campaigns, that’s not as difficult as it one was.
In short, Colbert Busch will be looking for voters to do something they’ve already done—vote for a Democrat in SC1; while Sanford will be looking for voters to do something they have not already done—vote for him in SC1.
Presenting the numbers this way makes it appear as though a Sanford win is unlikely. But it isn’t. And for one simple reason that requires little analysis—SC1 is a Republican district. That means that the higher the turnout, the better it is for Sanford. Of every five additional voters that vote above the 22 percent mark, three of them are likely to be Republican.
The numbers, of course, are entirely dependent on how motivated people are to vote, which is highly unpredictable.
It’s the job of the campaigns to motivate people to vote for their person or against the opponent. It really doesn’t matter.
In the first 24 hours of the general election both campaigns have provided some clues as to how they will they do that.
By now, voters have come to expect attacks and negative ads as part of most political campaigns.
The really tough stuff is usually handled by surrogates or PACs that support certain candidates (or oppose certain others).
Sanford’s transgressions will be brought up, but probably not by Colbert Busch herself. Instead her team will remind voters repeatedly that she is a woman.
For example, in responding to an appearance by Sanford on MSNBC Wednesday morning, the Colbert Busch team released a statement touting her record as a business leader which concluded with this sentence: “If those successes can't convince Mark that a woman is capable of leading, I don't know what will."
Message: Mark Sanford doesn’t respect women.
That’s powerful in a district where women make up at least 55 percent of the electorate.
Expect Democratic PACs to be much less subtle in delivering this message in the next five weeks.
Conversely, Sanford’s appearance on the show also was an indicator of how he’ll approach the race. For obvious reasons, he has to be careful about his criticism of Colbert Busch. Anything that makes him look like he’s demeaning her will be self-destructive. This wouldn’t be an issue if Sanford were running against a male candidate.
In the TV interview Sanford touted his own record and how he has been fighting against waste and spending for decades. He’s not delivering a poll-tested message, he’s been talking about debt for nearly twenty years. And he also knows that debt/spending is one of the top 3 issues for all voters in SC1.
He also takes a jab at Colbert Busch’s lack of experience through a jab at her more famous brother Stephen.
Message: This isn’t a race for dog-catcher. Experience and the willingness to take a position on a complicated issue matter.
Supporters and surrogates of Sanford have already spoken about Colbert Busch’s platform and the fact that she’ll have to be more specific and explain some inconsistencies.
For example, Sanford’s team notes that Colbert Busch said she likes some aspects of the Affordable Care Act (a/k/a ObamaCare). To the GOP way of thinking that means she would not do anything to reverse ObamaCare. And if there’s anything less popular among Republicans in SC1 than Barack Obama it’s ObamaCare.
Colbert Busch has also been touting herself as pro-business. Yet she was endorsed by the AFL-CIO labor union. If there is anything less popular than ObamaCare among SC1 Republicans it might be the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board), which has turned into a curse word thanks to its dispute with Boeing.
Many of the so-called “liberal elite” have gotten behind Colbert Busch. People like Al Franken and Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The Sanford team will try to paint her as a tax-and-spend liberal more like Franken and Wasserman Schultz in an effort to turn off moderates.
Colbert Busch may have perfectly good explanations for these other issues. The Sanford team will do everything it can to force her to make them.
The campaigns will also argued the different sides of the same coin. Sanford will emphasize his experience. Colbert Busch will say it’s time for someone new.
Sanford will say he is a known quantity and there will be no mystery about how he votes. Colbert Busch will ask what those votes in his stint in Congress did to help the people of SC1.
Voters should not be surprised to see Tim Scott and Nikki Haley get involved in the race. It's in Haley's interest that SC1 stay Republican for her re-election bid in 2014.
On the Democratic side, any number of high-profile names could stump for Colbert Busch. Vice President Joe Biden will be in Columbia at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner the weekend before Election Day. While Democrats have consistently said it won't happen, a trip to the Lowcountry by Biden while he's here can't be ruled out.
For all the aforementioned talk about numbers, how the campaigns execute their strategy will determine the passion with which people go to the polls.
Something to keep in mind? Sanford has never lost a general election. He’s 5-0.