Name recognition proved more important than money in a South Carolina Republican congressional primary Tuesday night as former Palmetto State Gov. Mark Sanford topped a crowded 16-candidate field, but failed to reach the threshold to avoid a runoff.
The race for South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District (in the Charleston area) gained national attention as Sanford tries to mount his political comeback after his cover-up of an extramarital affair was exposed while he was governor in 2009. Sanford did not resign and served out his term, and he is now engaged to his Argentine mistress.
The race is a special election to replace Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who was appointed to the Senate when Jim DeMint resigned in the middle of his term to head the conservative Heritage Foundation. Sanford held the House seat for three terms in 1990s before he became governor. No Democrat has won the seat since 1978.
While primaries with an abundance of candidates are usually hard to predict, Tuesday’s GOP contest played out as most political observers predicted, according to Mark Tompkins, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina.
“It went pretty much as expected. Mark Sanford had been well known in the district,” Tompkins told IBTimes, noting that Sanford represented the district before he was governor, albeit with slightly different boundaries. “Being well known is a big advantage and having a lot of money is a big advantage. … Name recognition trumped everything else in this first round -- and [will in] the runoff.”
Sanford got about 37 percent of the vote, according to an unofficial tally by the South Carolina State Election Commission. While the former governor had a plurality of votes, he didn’t get more than the 50 percent of the vote needed to avoid a runoff.
Sanford’s runoff opponent will be Charleston City Councilman Curtis Bostic, who received a little more than 13 percent of the vote. Former state Sen. Larry Grooms, who garnered more than 12 percent, or about 500 fewer votes than Bostic, had triggered an automatic recount but bowed out of the race, according to Politico.
Although name recognition helped Sanford, it was a double-edged sword for second-tier candidate Teddy Turner, son of CNN founder and well-known Democrat Ted Turner, Tompkins said.
“It helped him and it hurt him,” the professor said of Teddy Turner’s name recognition. “It helped him in the sense that he had money available.”
But the congressional hopeful’s pedigree was a liability, especially for those who despise Ted Turner or the well-to-do in general, according to Tompkins.
“He’s like the son of everybody’s who rich,” the professor said.
Money turned out not to be a decisive factor in the race, with one candidate, former state Rep. Chip Limehouse, putting up $600,000 of his own money -- only to finish seventh in the 16-person field. In sixth place was former state Sen. John Kuhn, who loaned himself $500,000. Sanford raised about $400,000 for his election bid.
Besides name recognition, Sanford’s campaign staff was a big factor for his result, according to Tompkins.
The professor pointed to the ex-governor’s first television ad in the race in which he indirectly mentioned his past transgressions -- he said he’s made “mistakes” -- and referenced “a God that gives second chances.”
“The Sanford campaign was particularly professional,” Tompkins said.
Whoever wins the GOP runoff will face Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, sister of Stephen Colbert of “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central.
Busch got her own share of national media attention due to her famous brother. She had an easier time than Sanford fending off the competition, defeating perennial Democratic candidate Ben Frasier, 96 percent to 4 percent.
Off-year elections can get unpredictable, but Tompkins said conventional wisdom is that Sanford will continue his political comeback -- largely due to the heavy Republican leanings of South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District.
“I’d bet on the Republican candidate and I’d bet on Sanford being the candidate,” Tompkins said.