Sunday, March 17, 2013

Your Quick and Dirty Guide to the #SC01 Special Election

Unlike our first special election this year, the race for the South Carolina First—vacated by Tim Scott when he was appointed to Jim DeMint's Senate seat—could sport a competitive general election, a rarity in the deep-red Palmetto State. The First District came within four points of electing a Democrat in 2008 (admittedly, under different district lines), and this year's almost-certain Democratic nominee, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, is a formidable candidate—in case you've been living under a rock, she has access to the deep pockets and national microphone of her brother Stephen.

But in this R+11 district, the likely next congressman from the Lowcountry remains the victor of the Republican primary, which takes place here on Tuesday. The problem is that we have no idea who's going to be that victor—or if we'll even know by Wednesday, thanks to South Carolina primary rules that require the winning candidate to get a majority of the vote. (With a field of 16 Republican candidates, it seems likely that we'll be forced into a runoff between the top two; that runoff would occur on April 2.)

The most famous of these candidates is, of course, ex-governor, former rumored presidential candidate, and Appalachian Trail hiker Mark Sanford. After his 2009 affair with an Argentine woman (whom he has since left his family to get engaged to), Sanford actually served out the rest of his gubernatorial term, retiring silently into the night in 2011. Only two years later, he's apparently ready for a political comeback, and he's mounting it in the same district where he got his start (he was the First District's congressman from 1995 to 2001). Right now, Sanford is the near-certain frontrunner in the 2013 special just because of name recognition (he's famous with a national audience, so imagine how crisply South Carolinians remember him). He also has a boatload of money; he already had approximately $120,000 left over from his old congressional campaign account, and he raised $334,397 more in January and February alone.

The other 15 Republicans are therefore probably racing for the second spot in the runoff. We can safely rule out probably half of this group, but, excitingly, there is a lot of uncertainty as to how seriously, exactly, to take each of the so-called serious candidates. One formidable contender, and probably the one with the second-highest name recognition, is Teddy Turner, who has distanced himself from the liberal views of his famous father and namesake. Thanks to his own wealth, Turner raised even more than Sanford ($376,433) during the same period. Former Charleston City Council member Curtis Bostic is also generating buzz—though not cash—as a conservative grassroots candidate. But he may be hurt by the revelation that he actually doesn't live in the First District. (Awkward.)

A trio of Columbia veterans are the remaining realistic candidates, thanks in large part to loans to their own campaigns. Former State Senator John Kuhn loaned himself $500K for a total take of $550,103 in two months. He has gone after Sanford the most aggressively, even boasting about the longevity of his marriage at a recent debate. State Representative Chip Limehouse collected $540,115, including a $400,000 loan to his own campaign. A member of an old Charleston family, Limehouse has received several high-profile endorsements (though these are often meaningless in a race like this). And State Senator Larry Grooms raked in $323,815, only $100,000 of which was a personal loan.

It's anyone's guess where these candidates stand in relation to one another; there have been no public polls of the race whatsoever. All the data we have to go off are in the form of internal polling whose specific numbers were never actually reported—we just have vague approximations from (probably biased) anonymous sources! The great local reporter Gina Smith has talked to these people about "several" polls, and she relays that Sanford holds a comfortable lead in all of them with about a third of the vote—not nearly enough to avoid a runoff. Apparently, however, the polls disagree about who is in second, with Limehouse, Turner, and Kuhn mentioned as the "most often" runners-up. Grooms and Bostic are also "making gains," she reports.

Unapologetically opinionated website FITSNews also talked to some sources about some specific polls. You probably shouldn't heed these as much as Smith's holistic approach, but they're worth sharing. A poll reported on March 6 found that Sanford's "forgiveness" ad (attempting to address his affair) hurt him, dragging him from the mid-thirties to the mid-twenties. Bostic was apparently the candidate who benefited, shooting up to the "upper teens." (Indeed, all reports are that Bostic has momentum. Could the grassroots candidate eke out a win?) In a close third was Turner, and in a close fourth was Grooms. Limehouse slid into fifth place, although FITSNews registers some serious doubt that he could be so low. A week later, FITSNews shared a separate poll with some slightly different results. Sanford was back near 30%, while Turner and Bostic shared second in the "low teens." Limehouse and Grooms occupied the "high single digits."

Here's an overview of the polling that's hopefully easier to digest. Remember, these are all internal polls (and we don't even know whose campaign did which poll), so take them with huge grains of salt.

3/6 3/13 Gina Smith roundup
Mark Sanford ~23–27% ~27–29% ~31–36%
Teddy Turner ~14–18% ~11–15% "most often following" Sanford
Curtis Bostic ~16–19% ~11–15% "making gains"
John Kuhn N/A N/A "most often following" Sanford
Larry Grooms ~12–17% ~6–9% "making gains"
Chip Limehouse ~3–9% ~6–9% "most often following" Sanford

So who has the edge for second place? The composition of the district could be a clue. If you look at a map of the district, you'll see it hugs the southern half of the South Carolina coastline, from Francis Marion National Forest down to Hilton Head. However, there's an odd growth to the district that protrudes north of Charleston, pushing inland to Lake Moultrie (but conveniently bypassing heavily black—and Democratic—North Charleston). According to Dave Wasserman's excellent spreadsheet, the district is 70.1% white, 19.4% black, and 6.5% Hispanic, although in a Republican primary, that's not likely to matter a whole lot.

By far, most of the votes in the district can be found in Charleston County; the state's largest city and the county that runs up and down the coast around it accounted for 41.3% of the total votes cast in the 2012 congressional race here. Three of the frontrunners—Sanford, Kuhn, and Limehouse—hail from Charleston itself, while a fourth (Turner) lives in the adjacent suburb of Mount Pleasant. Now, Sanford is likely to draw his votes equally from all corners of the district due to his general name recognition. Turner has never held elected office and is not better known in Mount Pleasant than elsewhere, so he too seems unlikely to get a regional boost; indeed, his support should be wide thanks to airing more TV ads than anyone else. That leaves Kuhn and Limehouse to split what's left of the Charleston vote—so about 10% of the total district vote, at most, each. That squares with their positions in the polling, and it's simply not enough to break the top-two threshold by itself. Since they don't figure to pick up much more support outside Charleston, I'd say the math just isn't there for those two.

Grooms is an interesting case because he has the district's third-largest county, Berkeley, all to himself. A native of Bonneau, in the northern protuberance part of the district, Grooms could lock up a significant share of the 19.5% of 2012 voters who live in Berkeley County. The problem may be Curtis Bostic. As the grassroots Tea Party candidate, Bostic could also stand to win a lot of votes in this, the district's reddest county in 2012. (I'm not counting the district's sliver of Colleton County, where Tim Scott received 540 of 649 total votes cast.) Not living in the district himself, Bostic doesn't really have a regional base, but look for him to run up the count in some of the district's more rural areas thanks to his evangelical base. While Grooms probably does have a golden opportunity in Berkeley County, it's close to impossible to eke out a win working exclusively out of an area containing only a fifth of the total vote share.

A real wild card is Beaufort County, which is the district's second-most populous area and home to Hilton Head Island. No candidates hail from this region on the southern end of the South Carolina coast, so theoretically those votes are up for grabs. Look for the candidates with the district-wide strategies, like Sanford and Turner, to do well here. (Bostic maybe less so, since this is the second bluest county in the district... Although remember this is relative, since every county is solidly Republican.)

The bottom line is this: anyone who thinks they can tell you with any kind of certainty who the two runoff finalists will be is conning you. But right now, given the regional splits of too many of the candidates, I have to lean toward the two who have district-wide appeal. My for-entertainment-purposes-only guess: Sanford 35%, Turner 20%—two points ahead of Bostic in third place.

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