Manny Ozaeta, Account Supervisor
This past Tuesday’s special election in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District proved to be a non-event. The contest was held to replace former Rep. Tim Scott, who had accepted an appointment to the Senate after Jim DeMint’s early departure to lead the ultra conservative think-tank, the Heritage Foundation. It was especially disheartening for Democrats who believed they had a shot at the seat. But voters in the district stuck to the old adage, “Better to stick with the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.”
Although the election was inconsequential in terms of control of the House or as barometer of insight into the broader 2014 midterms, the election was telling from both a political and PR perspective. Mark Sanford, the former Governor of the state, triumphed over his critics who believed he was politically dead after his much-publicized affair and disappearance in 2009. Ever since their respective primaries, this election was always going to be a referendum on Sanford. However, his opponent, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, had a very real opportunity to win.
The PR lessons to be held here are not from Sanford’s success but from Colbert Busch’s political ambiguity. She did not necessarily have any public missteps or stumbles, but she failed to recognize that in South Carolina, you have to do much more than point out your opponent’s moral failures. It is critical to introduce yourself and woo the voters of the Palmetto State. Early primary states, including New Hampshire and South Carolina require a retail approach. They expect to meet their candidates, and meet them again. Scheduling only one debate and failing to shake more hands and kiss more babies was ultimately more culpable than having a D after her name. The big lesson to be learned here: know your audience.
There is no doubt Sanford was vulnerable. Although Colbert Busch has a famous sibling in Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, she was a relative unknown, and more than that, a Democrat in a solid Republican District. If she had won, she would be target number one by the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2014. But she didn’t and today Colbert Busch and her strategists are kicking themselves for their “less is more” approach.
But hey, if Sanford can return after a trek through the Appalachian Mountains (his excuse when he was actually in Argentina visiting his mistress), surely Colbert Busch can make her own come back.