The Return of Mark Sanford

If there’s a lesson from yesterday’s special election in the first district of South Carolina—which covers most of Charleston, as well as small towns like Summerville and Goose Creek—it’s that Republican voters in the state are willing to do anything but vote for a Democrat. Elizabeth Colbert-Busch (sister of Stephen Colbert) ran a well-funded campaign to take the seat, but couldn’t prevail over disgraced former governor Mark Sanford, who won by a comfortable nine-point margin.

Not that this comes as a surprise. Not only does Sanford have a long-standing relationship with the district—he held the seat for three terms before becoming governor—but it’s also a deeply conservative area which Republicans routinely win by double-digits or more. Yes, one early poll from Public Policy Polling gave Colbert-Busch a large lead over Sanford, but at every point, the most likely outcome was a win for the former governor.

It’s tempting to read a broader narrative into this race, but the truth is that it doesn’t say much—if anything—about the national mood. Remove Sanford from the picture, and you’re left with an unremarkable story—“Republican wins congressional seat in South Carolina”. As is true in most elections, partisanship and ideology matter as much, if not more, than the quality of the candidate or her background.

In other words, if there were any lesson to draw from this race, it’s that there are almost no circumstances that would bring white Southerners to support a Democratic candidate, even if their opponent left office after abandoning his official duties to pursue an affair. White Southerners are loyal Republican voters—only white Democratic House member from the Deep South, Georgia’s John Barrow, represents a district that’s 40 percent black or Latino. Anything less, and odds are good he couldn’t win.

It should be said that when it comes to statewide elections, the South isn’t impossible for Democrats—Barack Obama won Virginia and North Carolina in 2008, and repeated the feat in Virginia last year. And with time and population growth, there’s a chance Georgia will become competitive as well.

But the political geography of the South gives Republicans a decisive advantage in legislative elections. Simply put, Republicans control more land than Democrats, who tend to live in urban areas, giving them control of congressional delegations and state legislatures.

Insofar that Democrats want to make further inroads in the South, it’s a tough status quo to crack.