MT. PLEASANT, S.C.— The people who believed in Mark Sanford started arriving before 7 p.m., parking their cars with varying degrees of legality and then walking into Liberty Tap Room. Sanford’s campaign had commandeered the entire bar, putting up spray-painted SANFORD SAVES TAX $ signs in the corner where the candidate would speak and turning all the TV channels to the local news. The first results, displayed on a small ticker below that night’s episode of Jeopardy, gave Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch a narrow lead.
How could this happen? For a brief and worried moment, I hear all the theories. Shirley Rabens, a retiree and activist with the Charleston County Republicans, picks over some shrimp from the buffet and bemoans the money and volunteer strike teams sent by national Democrats into her corner of South Carolina.
“It ought to be against the law to send people down from Washington to run a campaign like this,” she seethes. “This is a local election. This is for us to decide.”
To be fair to Charleston-area Democrats, they felt that way, too. When I’d touched base at the “Elizabeth” party (by the end, everyone was using her first name, or “ECB,” or occasionally “Lulu”), I found a family reunion of beaten-down low-country liberals who hadn’t held a congressional seat here since Jimmy Carter and hadn’t won any GOP seats in 47 attempts. A capable soft jazz band played as Charles Smith, who’d made a couple of failed attempts for the seat in years past, told me how he’d organized “the fundraiser that Elizabeth said she liked the best.”
But we’d felt doom in the ether, so I—like the other national “parachute” reporters—had driven over the bridge to the Sanford party. There, the worry and regret lasted only as long as the first vote counts in the precincts which were breaking against them. Tiny Edisto Beach seemed to have gone to sleep on Republicans, with a huge fall-off from 2012, and the first votes from somewhere in Charleston had Colbert Busch up by 18 points.
Then the suburban vote came in. A cheer went up as the little ticker—it was below The Voice now—recorded a 51-49 Sanford lead. By 8:02 p.m., an hour after the polls closed, votes were rolling in from Charleston. The Democratic lead there, the only thing that could have kept the race close, was collapsing. Those in the know were finally partying. I’d wanted to refresh a micro-buffet of fried delights for a few reporters who were, like me, working on the tavern’s porch, so I joined the queue right in front of a white-haired Mt. Pleasant poll-watcher named Roger O’Sullivan, who’d been working ECB’s home precinct.
“What’s the percentage of the vote we got?” he asks. “Somebody have an iPhone?” I have an iPhone and do O’Sullivan’s math: Sanford got 861 of 1492 votes, a 58 percent blowout where his opponent lived and slept.
“You know what did it?” asks Sullivan. “I did 24 mailings in this area. Turnout was up. That was all my mailing. It was tough. It said what needed to be said, you know: Do you want to see Nancy Pelosi back GMAC? Government loans, Fannie and Freddie? Well, you’ve got to vote. And it worked. I spent $600 on it, so it better have worked.”
The agreed-upon take on an election calcifies about as fast as the votes are counted. A week ago it wasn’t at all clear that Sanford could simply remind voters that Colbert Busch was a Democrat, and that they didn’t really like Democrats, and that this would be enough to win. After 8 p.m. Tuesday, the fellowship of reporters who’d parachuted in and the local wags who’d been covering the race were involuntarily mind-melding. Wow, she was a lousy candidate, wasn’t she?
“She was fine in the debate, but she never went from good to great,” says Will Folks, the editor of FITSNews and a man still most famous outside the state for claiming to have had an affair (before she won) with married South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. “I kept waiting for her to shift into a second gear—good answer, OK, now finish the point! She never did. She never came up with an issue that would separate her from national Democrats.” He shakes his head, not really out of sympathy for the candidate, more out of respect for the deceased. “They had this. They really had it and they threw it away.”
At 8:32, the official calls start coming in, and energetic young volunteers in blue blazers flit around to spread the news. Near our press table there’s a deafening roar: “YAAAAAHOOOO! CHARLESTON HELD THE LINE!” The screamer is Ed Evans, a 22-year Marine Corps veteran who made “a lot of damn phone calls” for Sanford. He turns toward a bank of a dozen TV cameras. “Tell the world, Charleston HELD THE DAMN LINE!”
Evans slaps backs and apologizes for his volume. He’s just thrilled, he says, because he “didn’t come back from the Marines to deal with this chicken shit”—i.e., watch Sanford lose. “None of these Republicans in D.C. will hold the line, but we’re sending in Mark Sanford. We sent a message to the world tonight!”
“The whole country is watching us,” chirps Charles Morgan, a retiree who says he made 500 election-day phone calls for Sanford.
As the crowd presses closer, and the heat and sweat grow harder to ignore, the conversation turns to “the message.” The election obviously won’t be seen outside this room as a victory for conservative values. No, it was Act 17 or Act 20 of a soap opera. And that’s fine. Let the people outside this room misunderstand Sanford’s personal journey.
“Of course he’s not perfect,” says Evans. “There was one perfect person, and they put him on the cross.”
Paula Viel joins the conversation by mocking all the “tweeters” spending the bitter night joking about Sanford. “They lost and they’re angry,” she says. “Ohhhhh, they’re tweeting? Let ‘em tweet, tweety birds!”