Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Why a Democrat has a chance against Mark Sanford in South Carolina

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
May 3, 2013 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, left, and Elizabeth Colbert Busch, are running for Congress in the South Carolina.
Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, left, and Elizabeth Colbert Busch, are running for Congress in the South Carolina.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon: Media emphasizing Jenny Sanford and Stephen Colbert in special election
  • In reality, the story is the race between Mark Sanford and Elizabeth Colbert Busch
  • He says there's reason Democrats can hope to capture the seat
  • Avlon: Changing demographics make victory for centrist Democrats possible

Editor's note: John Avlon, a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, is the author of "Independent Nation" and "Wingnuts." He won the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' award for best online column in 2012.

(CNN) -- The fiery South Carolina congressional special election between former Gov. Mark Sanford and Elizabeth Colbert Busch is attracting national attention -- but not for the reasons it should.

Listening to much of the national coverage, it can sound like a race between Jenny Sanford -- the ex-wife of the ex-governor -- and comedian Stephen Colbert, the brother of the Democratic candidate.

But the real news is that a Democrat could win the 1st Congressional District in South Carolina, reversing Republican control of the seat since 1981. Polls show Colbert Busch ahead and her confident debate performance on Monday night helped solidify the sense that momentum is behind her campaign.

John Avlon
John Avlon

Subsequent endorsements of Sanford by Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, who unhelpfully praised him as a "sexual pioneer," and a billboard put up by the odious adultery website Ashley Madison did nothing to help this would-be comeback kid.

It is too early to count Sanford out, despite some liberal pundits declaring the race all but over. The coastal 1st District still has a 20% Republican registration advantage, and Sanford has never lost an election. But if Colbert Busch does win, it should shake up the lazy partisan assumptions that underlie our politics. That's because the result will not just be a referendum on Sanford but would also be a reflection of changing demographics in South Carolina and throughout the South.

The idea that Texas, rich in Electoral College votes, could turn into a swing state has preoccupied pundits in recent weeks because it would upend presidential electoral math. A win by Colbert Busch in South Carolina wouldn't have equal implications, but it could be a canary in the coalmine. And a close analysis of how her campaign defied the odds would be required reading for any Southern Democrats.

Mark Sanford burned on affair in debate
Mark Sanford 'debates' Pelosi poster
Ex-mistress stands by Mark Sanford

First, consider that Charleston County -- the heart of the 1st Congressional District -- voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. Urban centers in the South have been trending more Democratic in recent years, buoyed not just by the black vote but younger voters -- including students and Northern transplants who move South for the improved quality of life.

In fact, the 1st District of South Carolina is only 21% rural, according to U.S. Census statistics published in the Almanac of American Politics. Most significantly, the population has grown 28% since 2000. This because of a Southern resurgence and a growth in local businesses, especially manufacturing -- thanks largely to the fact that South Carolina is a right-to-work state. (Colbert-Busch, who is also running on the Working Families Party line, proclaimed herself "proud to live in a right to work state during the debate).

The takeaway here is that the old assumptions about a monochrome conservative electorate don't apply in coastal areas of South Carolina. This creates an opening for a centrist Democrat to win, especially against a polarizing Republican.

And that is precisely the card that Colbert Busch has tried to play throughout the campaign, presenting herself as a "tough, independent businesswoman" who will try to find common ground in Congress.

During the contentious debate at the Citadel on Monday, a well-coached Colbert Busch repeatedly tried to distance herself from liberal positions and then seize the center.

"Obamacare is extremely problematic" she declared, expressing concerns about unintended costs and then pivoting to praise popular provisions such as an end to the exclusion of people with pre-existing conditions and the allowance for children to stay on their parents' health care plans until 26.

She proclaimed herself "a really proud defender of the Second Amendment" and then worked her way to saying she would have voted for the universal background check bill. Likewise, when she endorsed immigration reform, she framed it as a plan backed by the Chamber of Commerce and the state's senior senator, Lindsey Graham.

Even her most forthrightly liberal position, support for marriage equality, was explained by a quote from Dick Cheney -- "freedom means freedom for everyone." And when she was asked about abortion, she responded with a classic poll-tested Bill Clinton formulation -- it is a difficult personal choice that should be made between "a woman, her family, her doctor and her God."

Sanford's repeated tactic was to try and essentially deny her attempt at seizing the center by connecting her to Nancy Pelosi and labor unions. (Full disclosure: I hosted the debate, which was sponsored by Patch.com and South Carolina Radio Network.)

But there are a few lessons.

First, centrist Democrats can get elected in South. This has been made more difficult in recent years because the Blue Dog tribe has been hunted into near-extinction, thanks largely to the rigged system of redistricting. In the case of South Carolina's 1st District, that meant that the largely African-American neighborhood of North Charleston was added to the neighboring district of James Clyburn, the state's sole Democratic congressional representative, who won re-election in 2012, virtually unchallenged.

Democrats increase their competitiveness not by simply playing to the base, but reaching out to the center -- showing that they are committed to solving problems as well as being guided by core principles. Throughout the debate, Colbert Busch stuck studiously to that script, presenting herself an a independent-minded moderate who can help change the tone in Washington, contrasting with Republicans' increasing reputation for being too inflexible and uncompromising.

"We have got to come to the middle;" she pleaded. "We have got to be reasonable"

Second, demographics are destiny and even the Solid South is subject to change.

Diversity is on the increase, but almost more significantly is the population growth -- families moving to the South from other parts of the country in search of an improved quality of life and job opportunities. The growth of Southern cities also changes the political calculus because cities usually are less conservative than rural areas.

Finally, the competitiveness of this race even in a district with a 20-point Republican registration advantage shows that citizens are willing to vote for the person and not the party if they are given a compelling candidate and contrast. All of which is to say that Republicans who believe that they will inevitably win back the seat in 2014 might be mistaken.

Regardless of who wins the May 7 special election -- and, again, Sanford shouldn't be counted out -- the real winners are already the residents of the coastal South Carolina.

Competitive congressional elections are increasingly rare in an age of redistricting-enforced one-party rule. But when everyone's vote matters in a general election, it is a win for democracy.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1640 GMT (0040 HKT)
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1926 GMT (0326 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT