Former Gov. Mark Sanford overcame the media and the National Republican Congressional Committee to pull off a stunning upset in South Carolina’s first congressional district Tuesday. He went from being down 9 points with two weeks left to pulling off a runaway 9-point victory over Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch.
And he did it with a very simple strategy: run against Nancy Pelosi.
Because Colbert Busch was reluctant to take positions on specific issues, Sanford was able to define her as a willing lackey for the once-and-would-be Speaker. He nationalized the race by focusing on one of the Democrats’ least popular leaders, and all she represents.
President Barack Obama made Sanford’s task easier by telling an audience of San Francisco billionaire donors last month that Pelosi “is once again going to be Speaker of the House.” That prospect was terrifying enough to motivate voters to look past Sanford’s personal scandals and vote against Colbert Busch.
How focused was Sanford on Pelosi? So focused that he staged a mock debate against a cardboard cutout of Pelosi prior to his debate with Colbert Busch.
The left made fun of him. MSNBC’s Al Sharpton declared, “America mocks Sanford debating a cardboard cutout of Nancy Pelosi…he billed that as an actual event!”
Sharpton piled on by interrogating a Sanford cutout on the set of his show: “Did Gov. Sanford think we’d give him a pass on this very debatable stunt? Nice try, but we got you,” Sharpton declared smugly.
Not to be outdone was Chris Matthews of MSNBC’s Hardball, who made fun of Sanford’s cutout debate in his “Sideshow” segment Apr. 24, citing Colbert Busch’s 9-point lead and declaring: “This is not serious.”
Colbert Busch was exultant after the actual debate, declaring triumphantly, “I rocked it.” Even some conservatives gave her a win. What few outside the district realized was that it didn’t matter. Sanford just kept reminding his constituents that Colbert Busch’s first vote in Congress would be for Nancy Pelosi.
Pelosi maneuvered to retain her leadership of the Democrats in the House even after the calamitous 2010 defeat. Moderates such as former Rep. Heath Shuler, failed to persuade fellow Democrats to replace her. His warnings now look prophetic as the country heads into a new round of midterm elections in 2014.
Though Pelosi is more popular (or less unpopular) than the current Speaker, Republican John Boehner, she has remains broadly disliked by the electorate. Colbert Busch could have chosen to run against Congress, but found Sanford’s personal foibles a more appealing target.
Sanford seized the opportunity–and reminded the party that largely rejected him that the path back to victory lies through fighting the left, not each other.