CHARLESTON, S.C. -- In the end, the race is as predictable as any other general election in the Palmetto State. The ruby red, recently redrawn First Congressional District, a conservative stronghold on the South Carolina coast, has just sent another Republican to Congress -- as it has for the past 30 years.
Disgraced former Gov. Mark Sanford (R-Appalachian Trail) beat the big sister of comedian Stephen Colbert here 54-45.
In the Renaissance Hotel ballroom in downtown Charleston, Elizabeth Colbert Busch gives a short concession.
"Wow, we gave it a heck of a fight," she says, thanking friends and supporters. The people have spoken, she says, and she respects their decision. "When we started this race we knew it would be an uphill climb, and we were determined to do it."
So were national Democrats who turned the financial fire hose on a race they thought could be competitive because of the bizarre circumstances. Outside national groups spent untold millions on the race, with the overwhelming majority of the money supporting Colbert Busch.
To the general election voters she pitched herself as a centrist, independent businesswoman who shed liberal labels. She said she was proud to live in a right to work (read: non-union) state, even though she'd taken gobs of money from unions, which had opened her to an attack from the right. Had she won, this would have been no liberal lioness. During the race she'd denounced Obama's budget and dismissed Obamacare as expensive and problematic.
In the final days, as Colbert Busch canvassed the district in a tour bus, Sanford commandeered the rental cars of reporters covering the race.
All around the district were spray-painted plywood signs reading "Sanford Saves Tax $," meant to bring to mind thoughts of the frugal former Congressman who slept on a cot in his Washington office to save money back when he held this same seat in the '90s.
The former governor had kicked off his campaign with an apology tour for his past digressions and ended it with a syrupy charm offensive. Though the national Republican money machine pulled its plug on his campaign after news surfaced that he'd trespassed on his ex-wife's property, Sanford smiled through it. He gave voters his personal cell phone number on the sidewalk and in full-page newspaper ads. He nationalized the race by invoking the name of Nancy Pelosi every chance he could. (He even debated a cardboard cutout of the California liberal when his opponent refused to participate.)
When Colbert Busch finishes her concession speech, the mood in the hotel ballroom is less hang-dog than what-did-we-expect. Shoulders shrug. Heads shake slowly. More drinks are purchased at a cash bar where the man who ran the campaign looks sour and won't talk to the press.
In the immediate aftermath the blame game goes to simple demographics.
"Oh, listen, it's a Republican district, man," says Jaimie Harrison, the incoming chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, as he stands outside thumbing a smartphone.
"It was a Republican district. Romney won it by 18 percentage points; it was only 22 percent African American; it was a Republican district," says Phil Noble, president of the South Carolina New Democrats as he leans against the hotel facade.
"We knew it was going to be a tough race all along. This was an uphill battle. It's a very red district," says James Smith, Colbert Busch's campaign spokesman as he makes his way through a crowd of reporters.
"I'd planned for a victory. I'd planned for a close defeat. I didn't plan for a blowout," says Tyler Jones, a Democratic operative and third vice chair of the state party. But still, there's little shock in his voice.
A few miles away, across the Arthur Ravenel Bridge, named after a former Congressman whose son became the GOP state treasurer here who went to prison in 2008 on federal cocaine charges and is now the focus of a TV show in production at Bravo about charmed Southern life, Mark Sanford is reveling in his own comeback.
Even Sanford's closest aides say they didn't expect to win by such a large margin.
His fiancée, Maria Belen Chapur, the Argentine woman for whom many thought Sanford had permanently derailed his life in American politics, chats with men who want a picture with her in a Mount Pleasant restaurant called Liberty. Sanford shakes every hand, some more than once. At one point, when he moves close to Chapur for a private moment near the restroom, two print photographers spring into action for the shot they've been waiting for. Sanford, spooked by the flashes, understands immediately what's going on. He bolts from the scene, laughing hysterically and thoroughly enjoying himself at their expense -- spoiling their best shot.
South Carolina Democrats know exactly how that feels.