The marshes and rice fields of coastal South Carolina were once considered an unhealthy place, where the night air contained a “miasma” that could bring on fevers and death.
This was an old wives’ tale. The real culprit along the Carolina seacoast, or “low country,” was malaria borne by mosquitoes - which are more active at night, hence the association between disease and time of day. But though the low country is nowadays a lovely and healthful place, it claimed another victim this week: Democrats, forced to bury their hopes of recapturing the House of Representatives next year.
The fatal bite was delivered by former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, a political zombie if ever there was one, via his defeat of Elizabeth Colbert Busch in a special election for a vacant seat in the district that encompasses Charleston.
Sanford’s victory would not have been remarkable under other circumstances. The district is heavily Republican (it went for Romney by 18 points last November) and, by most standards, a former governor like Sanford is over-qualified for the House of Representatives.
Yet Sanford was all but abandoned by his own party. The GOP seemed ready to write off his political comeback in the wake of his nationally publicized sex scandal in 2009, in which he claimed to be hiking the Appalachian Trail in order to cover up an affair with the woman who is now his fiancee. The National Republican Congressional Committee withdrew its support of Sanford in April, in the wake of leaked information about renewed legal disputes between Sanford and his ex-wife.
Colbert Busch enjoyed the backing of national Democrats (and their money), her brother Stephen Colbert and his celebrity influence, and the many South Carolinians, especially women, who just could not see themselves voting for Sanford for any elected office whatsoever. According to Bloomberg, Colbert Busch raised about $1.2 million to Sanford’s $788,000. But it wasn’t enough.
It is unlikely that Sanford won the election because most residents of the district like him better than Colbert Busch. It is much more probable that an overwhelming majority of them prefer John Boehner to Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House. A vote for Sanford was, effectively, a vote for Boehner, and Sanford was quick to frame it that way. His campaign also encouraged the converse view that a vote for Colbert Busch was a vote to return the House to the hands of Pelosi, who helped to push President Obama’s legislative agenda through Congress during the president’s first two years in office.
If there is one thing most South Carolinians don’t like, it’s Obama’s legislative agenda.
The result might have been different had the race been held last November, with Obama at the top of the ticket to draw the less motivated among Democratic voters. Unfortunately for the Democrats, Obama was not running this week. He won’t be running in 2014, either.
Keeping control of the House does not mean Republicans are likely to win a majority in the Senate, even though, for the third time in a row, the legislative calendar works in their favor. Republicans have amply demonstrated that if they nominate poor candidates in statewide races, they can lose otherwise winnable seats.
Most House districts, in contrast, are essentially one-party fiefdoms in which even a seemingly hopeless candidate can win if he runs on the right ticket. If a disgraced Mark Sanford can triumph in socially conservative South Carolina, then there probably are not enough truly competitive House seats left to give Democrats a realistic chance at gaining a majority next year.
That hope died in the low country’s springtime night air.