S.C. Democrats betting on Colbert Busch for congressional seat

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ELIZABETH COLBERT BUSCH

Age: 58

Occupation: Director of business development at Clemson University's Restoration Institute

Politics: Democratic nominee for South Carolina's 1st Congressional District

Positions: Colbert Busch supports gay marriage, calling it a civil rights issue. She favors a "tough but fair" path to citizenship for the country's millions of undocumented workers. She says she is against raising taxes "in the short term," arguing Congress should end fraud, waste and abuse in federal programs such as Medicare to save money before raising taxes.

Endorsements: South Carolina Democratic Women's Council, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia; U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.; Charleston Mayor Joe Riley; the South Carolina chapter of the AFL-CIO; Charleston businessman Martin Skelly, Colbert Busch's former Democratic primary opponent

Family: Husband, Claus; three children; brother, Stephen, host of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report"

COLUMBIA, S.C. — A plane crash. A terrorist attack. "America's Most Wanted."

Elizabeth Colbert Busch just sighs.

"My life's challenges have become my life's blessings," she said. "Those challenges, from the time that I was a young girl until today, (are) the reason why I'm running for office."

Colbert Busch is a Democrat, and she is attempting to represent South Carolina's 1st district in the U.S. House of Representatives -- something no Democrat has done in more than three decades.

But Democrats think they have finally found their candidate in Colbert Busch, who has deep ties to the Lowcountry's business community and is the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert, who often mentions her on his "Comedy Central" show and is helping with her campaign.

"I think she has one of the best opportunities since Pug Ravenel ran in 1980," said Kay Koonce, a Democratic activist who worked on Ravenel's unsuccessful 1980 campaign that saw Republicans take control of the seat.

Republicans will choose their nominee on Tuesday, either former Gov. Mark Sanford or former Charleston County Councilman Curtis Bostic. But last week, a Democratic polling company released poll results that showed Colbert Busch tied with Bostic in a hypothetical matchup, at 43 percent, and leading Sanford, 47 percent to 45 percent.

Even Stephen Colbert had a higher favorability rating (36 percent) than Sanford (34 percent), according to the poll.

The results surprised many political observers, especially since Mitt Romney won the 1st congressional district by 18 points over President Barack Obama in November. And the poll got Republicans' attention, leading to Colbert Busch playing a big role in Thursday night's televised debate between Bostic and Sanford.

"Polls show that should the governor be the candidate facing the Democrat we will lose this seat and lose it needlessly," said Bostic, who is trailing Sanford by a wide margin, according to most polls. "A compromised candidate is not what we need."

A third candidate keeping a close eye on this election? Republican S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley.

Haley has strong support in the Upstate, while her potential Democratic rival, Sen. Vincent Sheheen, has support in the Midlands and Pee Dee. The Lowcountry, while home to more Republicans than Democrats, could host most of the gubernatorial battles next year. Haley has been busy visiting the Lowcountry recently in her role as governor.

"If I'm Nikki Haley, I'm working my butt off to make sure Elizabeth Colbert Busch doesn't win because it does not help her chances in 2014," said Tyler Jones, a Charleston, S.C.-based political consultant.

But a Haley campaign official said the governor is not concerned.

"We'll run on our record, which is something we're looking forward to," said Tim Pearson, Haley's political consultant and former chief of staff. "And the top-of-the ticket always drives the vote, so with two senators (Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott) and a governor on the ballot, I can't see who's running for Congress much mattering to our race."

South Carolina's 1st Congressional District changed in 2011 when lawmakers created a new 7th Congressional District anchored in Horry County.

The Republican strongholds of Horry and Georgetown counties were removed from the 1st District. Remaining are Beaufort, Charleston and Hilton Head Island.

"Dropping Horry and Georgetown, it has made this district much more Libertarian-leaning, much more fiscally conservative to the point that social issues aren't nearly as important to the average Republican voter," said Scott Buchanan, a political science professor at The Citadel in Charleston. "I don't think it's necessarily making it friendly for Democrats, but making it more friendly for those who run a fiscally conservative platform. People (are) more willing to give you a pass on the social issues."

It appears Colbert Busch is shaping her campaign along that model. She supports gay marriage, telling The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., in an interview "this is a matter of civil rights and this is a matter of equal protection under the law." And she supports "a tough but fair path to citizenship" for the country's millions of undocumented immigrants, including having them pay back taxes.

"This is about keeping the best and the brightest in our country. We have to find a sensible way to be able to keep them here," she said.

And when she starts talking about fiscal policy, she sounds more like a Republican, drawing on her 25 years of business experience, railing about the nation's $16 trillion debt and saying on her website that "if Congress were a business, our leaders would be fired."

She said she is not in favor of new taxes "in the short term" but did not say if, or when, Congress should raises taxes to address the budget deficit. She says she is against the budget sequester -- the $85 billion in automatic spending cuts that went into effect March 1 -- pointing out that the federal government first needs to get rid of fraud, waste and abuse, especially in the Medicare program.She says the Medicare program -- health insurance for anyone over 65 -- could save $24 billion a year if Congress would allow the program to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies on prices. And she cites studies from the federal Government Accountability Office and the nonprofit Rand Corporation estimating Medicare has $142 billion in overpayments and fraud, waste and abuse each year.

"Here is … $166 billion that we know from the GAO is in fraud, waste, overbilling and pharmaceuticals, right? And that's just one part of the entire budget. But that one part is twice what the sequester is," she said. "We have to look through the entire budget, find out where else are we overpaying."