Former Gov. Mark Sanford won his old seat in South Carolina’s 1st District last month in a campaign in which candidates and outside groups spent about $7.3 million.
Sanford, coming back from the scandal of an extramarital affair that derailed his political career, was outspent but still defeated Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch to win the congressional seat he held for three terms in the 1990s.
Campaign reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show all the candidates together spent just under $6 million with another $1.3 million poured in by outside groups, most of it to oppose Sanford.
The Sanford campaign spent about $1.1 million compared to about $1.8 million for Colbert Busch. State Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, also spent just over $1 million in seeking the GOP nomination.
In a heavily conservative district, raising money and getting enough votes was a major challenge for Democrats, said James Smith, Colbert-Busch’s press secretary.
“But we were able to raise so much money because there was appeal across the ideological spectrum for our message,” he said. “In a race like this, sometimes it’s just about the numbers, and the numbers weren’t there for us.”
Sanford could not be reached for comment.
Sanford emerged from a 16-way GOP primary with several sitting state lawmakers as well as Teddy Turner, the son of media magnate Ted Turner. He then won the primary runoff against Curtis Bostic. Colbert Busch, the sister of political satirist Stephen Colbert, defeated perennial candidate Ben Frasier in the Democratic primary.
The numbers show House Democratic groups spent about $800,000 in their bid to defeat Sanford.
The total spent on the campaign is just shy of the nearly $7.5 million spent in the 5th District on the northern edge of the state three years ago. In that race, Republican Mick Mulvaney unseated 14-term Democratic U.S. Rep. John Spratt. Outside groups spent about $3.4 million in that contest.
Political scientist Scott Buchanan, the executive director of The Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics, said it was no surprise so much money was poured into the 1st District race.
“This was garnering national attention because it was just one of a handful of special elections this spring across the nation,” he said. “You had Mark Sanford, which made him a prime target for the Democrats.”
He said the race was a referendum on Sanford “and obviously voters were more willing to return Mark Sanford to Congress than a Democrat, even if Sanford had baggage.”
Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said that the parties saw both the Spratt and the Sanford races as opportunities to pick up seats from the opposition. It worked in the 5th District, where Spratt had routinely won re-election although both the state and the district were increasing Republican.
It didn’t work for Democrats in the 1st District, which Republican Mitt Romney captured by 18 points in last year’s presidential race.
Buchanan said Sanford winning by 10 points shows the seat is still solidly Republican, but suggests another Republican would likely have won by 15.
The Democrats, he said, likely felt a win in the 1st District would carry over into next year’s congressional elections. But Buchanan said generally special elections are local and really don’t have national implications.
“But as I have told my classes many times, politicians and political parties are more superstitious than baseball players,” he said.
The 1st District seat became vacant last year when U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint resigned and sitting 1st District Rep. Tim Scott was appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley to take his place.
Tony Bartleme contributed to this report.