In general, it’s difficult to learn too many lessons from special elections, or so most think. The ad hoc nature of the contests, the lack of competition from other races, and the brief campaign time all contribute to an exceptionality that keep from turning them into narratives. The same will be true for the most part in South Carolina’s special election last night, but a couple of points should be noted.
Mainly, a flood of money probably doesn’t mean as much as people believe in special elections, and might actually be counterproductive in one real sense. Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch ran in a tough district, but faced a Republican with a massive personal scandal and an ethical black mark on his record. She also outraised her opponent by 5-1, according to Politico, and she still lost by nine points:
Independent liberal groups, national Democrats and influential donors spent nearly $1 million to flood the airwaves in support of Elizabeth Colbert Busch — outspending Mark Sanford’s conservative allies by more than 5-to-1. …
Colbert Busch was the recipient of almost $900,000 in outside spending from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and House Majority PAC alone.
The irony for Democrats is that while many of their rank-and-file members oppose the kind of big outside spending that has characterized the last few election cycles, liberal groups are now as professional and institutionalized as their GOP counterparts.
It wasn’t just outside money where Colbert Busch outstripped Sanford, either:
On the traditional fundraising side the equation, Democrats also had the advantage. Between late February and mid-April, Colbert out-raised Sanford significantly. She raised almost $900,000 between late February and mid-April, and $1.1 million total, according to her most recent campaign finance report. Her bid was aided by her comedian brother’s star power and a who’s who of Democratic stars who helped fundraise for her in two East Coast fundraising stops.
In the same time period, Sanford raised just under $400,000. According to his last report, Sanford raised almost $800,000 through late April — but he faced a competitive primary election, unlike Colbert Busch.
Still, campaign finance watchdogs say Sanford took in enough to be competitive — even as the Democrats and their allies outspent him — pointing to a late surge in campaign contributions.
In fact, this was an interesting contrast. Unlike Colbert Busch, who successfully nationalized the race on the fundraising side, Sanford had to do almost all the lifting on fundraising by himself. Thanks to the scandal, national Republican groups wanted nothing to do with him. On the political side, however, it was Sanford who prevailed in nationalizing the race, in part because of that big fundraising boost for Colbert Busch. He painted his opponent as Nancy Pelosi’s protege and told voters in SC-01 that their decision wasn’t Sanford vs Colbert Busch, but South Carolina vs Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid all rolled up into one — and Colbert Busch’s flashy fundraising had to have helped sell that message.
The 1st CD is rated R+18 in the Cook Report, so one could argue that losing by nine to a Republican is a moral victory — but it’s clearly not that at all in the specifics, especially considering the nature of special elections. Sanford was a damaged, weak candidate with few allies and a whole lot of his own party annoyed and chagrined to see him run for office again. When he prevailed in the Republican primary (in a relatively low turnout), Democrats fully expected to feast on his political corpse. Instead, they barely avoided a double-digit loss after spending a fortune to beat Sanford.
What does this mean for 2014? Probably nothing at all. It does mean that we should rethink how big national spending in local special elections actually impacts the race, especially in states where one party dominates as much as Republicans do in South Carolina. In this case, it seems to have absolved Mark Sanford of all his sins at least long enough to work up a small landslide in answer to the big footprint of Democratic money.