If I told you what Elizabeth Colbert Busch was against — President Obama’s budget, many parts of Obamacare — you wouldn’t guess she’s a Democrat. But if I told you what she’s for — marriage equality, a woman’s right to choose, expanding Medicaid — you would never guess this is South Carolina.
Yet over the past few months, Colbert Busch has created a unique recipe for her congressional campaign: one part fiscally conservative, one part socially liberal, and a garnish of ethical problems surrounding Mark Sanford’s recent affair. It’s as if you threw Paul Ryan and Nancy Pelosi in a cocktail shaker and made sure the resulting candidate never set foot on the Appalachian Trail.
Next week, voters in South Carolina’s lowcountry will decide whether that’s the right mix to represent the first congressional district as Colbert Busch faces off against Sanford, former governor of the state who also held this seat for three terms in the late 1990s, to fill the vacancy left by now-Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC).
Colbert Busch has her work cut out for her. Mitt Romney cleaned up in the district last November, taking 58 percent of the vote. Just three Democrats currently represent redder districts in Congress, all of whom are white men.
If Colbert Busch has any hope of winning the May 7th vote, she’ll need to convince a lot of Romney voters that they want a Democrat as their next representative.
And where better to start currying favor with Republicans than by castigating Obamacare? It’s “expensive” and “extremely problematic” she said during a debate in Charleston this week, telling the crowd that it needs “an enormous fix.”
How about the always-contentious issue of labor unions in South Carolina? “I’m proud to live in and support a right-to-work state,” Colbert Busch argued, defending a state law that makes it significantly harder for unions to organize. She also attacked the National Labor Relations Board for fielding a complaint that Boeing had retaliated against striking workers in Washington state by moving a production line to South Carolina. “This is a right-to-work state and NLRB had no business telling Boeing where they can locate,” Colbert Busch said in language more frequently heard from the likes of Mitt Romney and Gov. Nikki Haley (R).
It might be surprising to hear Democrats applauding such lines, but remember the larger picture. Republicans have held this seat for more than 30 years. Desperation will do weird things to people. With polls showing Colbert Busch tantalizingly close to pulling off the upset, supporters can be forgiven for being intoxicated by the prospect of winning. Victory over ideology, at least for now.
And yet for every fiscally conservative position, Colbert Busch offers a liberal lining. She bashes Obamacare, but touts its protections for women and people with pre-existing conditions, and even supports Medicaid expansion to boot. She decries our federal debt — “we need to get our fiscal house in order” — but uses her background as a businesswoman to argue that the government needs to put more funding in infrastructure like local universities and the Port of Charleston. “You have to invest to get a return,” Colbert Busch argued during a recent meet-and-greet at Red Fish Restaurant in Hilton Head.
And Colbert Busch goes out of her way to ensure that every liberal position is couched in conservative language. “I am a strong defender of the Second Amendment,” she declared, but went on to say she supported expanding background checks. Colbert Busch favors the Gang of 8’s immigration reform bill, including a pathway to citizenship, but who does she cite to justify her support? The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a corporate trade group that puts up millions of dollars in campaign ads targeting mostly Democrats. When she touts her support of marriage equality — no small issue in the land of Dixie — she makes sure to note that her position is the same as Dick Cheney’s.
Giving liberal views a conservative patina and vice versa worked to remarkable effect during her recent debate with Sanford. For 75 minutes, Colbert Busch held the audience’s attention not because she’s a forensics champion, but because unless you’d been following her campaign closely, you didn’t know what her position might be on any given issue. While a California Democrat might hold few surprises, Colbert Busch is unpredictable. Hers is the Outback Steakhouse campaign: no rules, just right.
In other words, Colbert Busch is not Nancy Pelosi, despite Sanford’s insistence to the contrary. In the waning days of the campaign, he has centered his message on painting Colbert Busch as just another vote for a Pelosi speakership. (Congress won’t actually vote for the next Speaker until January 2015, by which time another congressional election will be held in the district, but Sanford hopes voters next week won’t realize that.)
“I’m the one running for office,” Colbert Busch retorted during a campaign stop in Hilton Head. “My name is Elizabeth Colbert Busch, and nobody tells me what to do except the people of the first district.”
But the fact that Republicans are now directly attacking her is a sign of growing fear about Tuesday’s outcome. There is a Gandhi saying that “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win,” and for a long time Colbert Busch was stuck somewhere between steps 1 and 2. Most headlines (and even Sanford himself) referred to her simply as “Stephen Colbert’s sister.” Being related to the late night comedian “isn’t a whole lot of a qualification for what the vote is,” South Carolina GOP Chairman Chad Connelly recently told ThinkProgress.
If it bothered Colbert Busch, you wouldn’t know it. “I’m one of 11 children and I have 8 brothers,” she noted to ThinkProgress in an interview. In other words, she’s used to having to stick up for herself.
Many of her supporters, especially women, take umbrage at the suggestion that she’s little more than a famous last name. “It is so offensive,” Diana Radcliffe, who volunteers four days a week with the campaign, told ThinkProgress outside a recent stop. “So demeaning,” she said, shaking her head.
If she wins, Colbert Busch would be just the second woman ever to represent the district, but the good old boy’s club is not one to go down without throwing a few punches. A mysterious group has been placing push polls — a phone call masquerading as a poll but actually designed to smear one candidate — throughout the district, asking voters if their opinion of Colbert Busch would change if they knew she had had an abortion or had been arrested.
Many of these calls seem to have targeted women, and for good reason. Even though the district is conservative-leaning, women make up 55 percent of the vote. The importance of their vote is apparent watching Colbert Busch on the stump. She talks women’s issues — from her support for equal pay to her opposition to school vouchers as a mother who knows the importance of public school funding — without explicitly wearing them on her sleeve, a la Ann Romney’s “I love you women!” Indeed, Colbert Busch wouldn’t even concede that she’s targeting the women’s vote at all. “We’re going after every vote,” she told ThinkProgress.
The not-so-secret dirty secret of this race is that, for all of Colbert Busch’s strengths as a candidate, it’s unlikely she would be doing so well in the polls if her opponent were someone other than Sanford. Running against a man who very publicly cheated on his wife and has since been charged with trespassing at her home has its advantages, as even Colbert Busch’s most ardent supporters will admit. “He’s an issue for a lot of people,” Radcliffe said. “The fact that Elizabeth is ethical means a lot to me.”
It also gives Colbert Busch one-liners for days. She lambasted Sanford at a recent veterans event, saying he was “AWOL” during his taxpayer-funded flights to visit his Argentinean mistress and calling it a “dereliction of duty.” “It’s nothing personal,” she insisted, “it just is what it is.”
There’s no question, between the two candidates, who is a more natural politician. Colbert Busch’s speeches are not full of funny quips. She doesn’t fill a room like Bill Clinton (few do). She’s not the gladhander that Sanford is.
But there’s a genuine earnestness about her that, as failed candidates and inattentive spouses know, can be incredibly difficult to pull off, much less sustain. Her speeches are dotted with Clintonesque pauses that give her discussion of even unsexy issues like infrastructure investment a sense of gravity. She also exudes a disarming humility, often thanking the crowd for making her feel so comfortable speaking there.
And, despite his advantage in political experience, she’s not afraid of Sanford. I’ve watched first-time candidates cower in the spotlight. It’s forgivable, if not pretty. But as Colbert Busch has sparred with Sanford up and down the South Carolina coast, her ability to stay on her message and knock him off his is the hallmark of a 10-term congressman, not a political neophyte.
It’s worth remembering this fact if the wheel of fortuna spins Colbert Busch’s way next week. Not only is she a first-time candidate facing off against a former governor, but doing so in a district that gives her opponent a significant head start. Winning a congressional race is hard enough. Winning one as a pro-choice, pro-marriage equality woman in lowcountry South Carolina is nothing short of remarkable.