The race to fill South Carolina's vacant 1st Congressional District begins tonight with special primary election and a vibrant cast of candidates -- most notably former Republican Gov. Mark Sanford, seeking a political comeback just a few years after a scandal involving an extramarital affair that drew national headlines. You'll recall he got attention after explaining his disappearance as having been out hiking the Appalachian trail. If he finishes in the top tier - first or second place - the "comeback trail" puns will no doubt prove irresistible.
Sanford may be the better-known candidate but he isn't the only high-profile one. The Republican field also includes Teddy Turner, son of the billionaire media mogul Ted Turner, who is running as the non-politician outsider in the race -urging voters to "break up" with career politicians in a not-so-thinly veiled nod toward Sanford's past.
The seat opened up when Gov. Nikki Haley, R-S.C., appointed then-Rep. Tim Scott to the U.S. Senate. Today's primaries that will determine the party nominees in the special election to be held in May. If no one secures a majority out of a crowded GOP field, though, they'll be a runoff. That large field could be a numerical favor to Sanford, since it means no one is likely to get that majority, so he'd simply need to finish in the top two.
And being well-known could help -- a special election like this is a lot about retail politics because turnout is usually low. He was the congressman from the region - which stretches along the coast taking in Hilton Head and Charleston - in the late 1990s, before he was governor. But to try to put all the negative notoriety behind him, this time around he's asking for forgiveness, and stressing conservative policy views.
In raw number terms, neither Sanford nor anyone else needs a lot of votes to advance right now. In the recent past these primaries and runoffs have drawn about 60,000 to 80,000 votes. There are 450,000 registered voters in the district. (Hence the mandatory stock phrase for all special election writeups: turnout is everything.) In 2010 now-Senator Tim Scott finished comfortably first in his primary with 25,000 votes, and that's probably the total any top candidate is aiming for now; even fewer may hold up to make the runoff. If you're watching returns, the counties within the district that hold the bulk of the voters are Charleston, Beaufort, and Dorchester.
The Democratic side has its own celebrity connection too, with Elizabeth Colbert Busch seeking the party's nod - she is the sister of Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert, who has helped out with fundraisers and mentions on his show. Widely considered the frontrunner, Colbert Busch would await the eventual Republican nominee in the matchup in May. She'll be hoping for that runoff - more time for the Republicans to attack each other - though she might ultimately have her hands full in what is a heavily conservative district - it voted handily for Mitt Romney with nearly 60%. But it'll be one that will be sure to keep drawing national interest, along with all the usual uncertainties that come with special elections and, yes, their unpredictable turnout.