Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC)’s comfortable win in Tuesday’s special election points to the strength of making Democrat policies a focus of any campaign. Sanford overcame enormous obstacles by making his race a referendum on Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Barack Obama and national Democrat priorities. His race should serve as a template for GOP campaigns next year.
The seat Sanford won on Tuesday is a Republican district. Mitt Romney won the district by 18 points in 2012. Sanford, however, was at a competitive disadvantage heading into the election. A high-profile personal scandal had tarnished him in the eyes of many, especially conservative, voters. National GOP leaders, and outside groups, largely abandoned him, allowing his opponent to massively outspend him. A few weeks before the election, a court document was leaked, claiming he had trespassed at his ex-wife’s house. Yet, on Tuesday, Sanford won by almost 10 points.
Sanford won by nationalizing the race and tying his opponent to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and House Democrats. He spoke to voters, one-on-one, arguing that the nation was at a crossroads and needed to decide whether it would go “right” or “left. He made it very clear which direction he would pursue. His opponent tried to cast herself as a “centrist” and largely avoiding discussing specific issues. Her stealth campaign made it easier for Sanford to tie her to national Democrats.
Democrats had the benefit of a messy personal scandal, a candidate with a high-profile name and at least a 3-1 spending advantage and yet couldn’t make the race competitive.
There is a lesson here for Republican candidates. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Democrat policies remain deeply unpopular with large segments of the electorate. Voters remain hyper-focused on the economy and government spending, two issues where Republicans maintain a clear advantage. Embracing this advantage as Sanford did, rather than courting the media by “moderating” other positions is the path to victory.
This advantage will only become more pronounced next year, after ObamaCare takes full effect. The Democrats’ signature achievement when they held power will cause a ripple of unintended consequences throughout the economy. Many businesses will change their operations to minimize the impact of the new health care law. Democrat Senator Max Baucus has predicted that implementation of the law will be a “train wreck.”
If his prediction comes true, that “train wreck” could devastate Democrats next November. They can escape defeat, however, if Republicans fail to press their advantage. Sanford’s victory has shown Republicans a way to overcome seemingly unsurmountable obstacles. National Republicans abandoned Sanford in his race, but would be wise to absorb his lesson.