One week away from a special election to fill a vacated congressional seat in South Carolina’s 1st district, Democratic candidate Elizabeth Colbert Busch and the Republican candidate, former governor Mark Sanford, met at the Citadel for their first and only debate of the campaign.
The candidates discussed a range of issues including national debt, entitlements, gun control, abortion and same-sex marriage. A majority of their time was spent separating themselves from their parties and from Washington politics.
Sanford attacked Colbert Busch’s allegiance to the Democratic Party by repeatedly mentioning House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and legislation they both support—this tactic didn’t gain much traction for him and solicited some jeers from the audience. “Nancy Pelosi is running hundreds of thousands of dollars in ads,” Sanford said. “It’s not believable to me that someone gives you a million dollars and [does] not expect something in return.”
Colbert Busch pushed back on these accusations and tried to distance herself from Capitol Hill career politicians and contentious issues like President Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act. “I want to be very clear, Mark… nobody tells me what to do, except the people in South Carolina’s first district,” she said. “I am a fiscally conservative, independent, tough businesswoman.”
The jab of the night came from Colbert Busch, who did not miss the opportunity to remind constituents of Sanford’s most notorious scandal. “When we talk about protecting the taxpayers, it doesn’t mean you take the money we saved and leave the country for a personal purpose,” she said.
Sanford, who was found to be using official funds to finance personal trips to Argentina to visit his mistress (now fiancée) Maria Belén Chapur, has taken heavy criticism for his 2009 public infidelity, and there was no escaping it during Monday night’s debate. Sanford dodged responding to Colbert Busch by pretending to have not heard the comment.
Unfortunately for Sanford, he could not avoid the topic. The moderator asked if he regretted his vote to impeach President Bill Clinton following the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Sanford responded, “I would reverse the question to you. Do you think that President Clinton should be condemned for the rest of his life based on a mistake that he made in his life?” Likening himself to Clinton won’t help redeem his long list of gaffes.
After recently debating a life-size poster of Nancy Pelosi, being summoned to court by his ex-wife for trespassing, and publicizing the phone numbers of constituents who had contacted Sanford when a Democratic PAC released his cellphone number (but only after he had printed it in a full-page ad of his own), the former governor has a good deal of making up to do. To make an already bad situation worse, an online dating service that specializes in extramarital affairs recently purchased billboard space in South Carolina, using Sanford as the face of their ads.
Candidates running for any office can expect to face some level of scrutiny, but with his public record and recent episodes, Sanford clearly has far more to prove. For a candidate who was disowned by his own party, he has worked extra-diligently to assure the voters in South Carolina’s 1st district and potential colleagues that his personal matters would not cross into his commitment to constituents.
While Sanford, running for the same congressional seat he once held, needed the victory on Monday night (recent polls show Colbert Busch ahead of Sanford by a 9-point margin), his Democratic opponent was aggressive, on point, and pulled out a win in a typically conservative district.
AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt