CHARLESTON, S.C. – The Palmetto State basks in the political limelight every four years with the first-in-the-South presidential primary. But a rare sequence of events is drawing some big names to an off-season congressional race in South Carolina's Low Country.
A primary is scheduled for March 19 to fill the U.S. House seat of now-Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. In December, Gov. Nikki Haley appointed Scott to succeed former Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, who resigned to become president of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
With no incumbent, the field was wide open for both novice and experienced politicians to enter the race for South Carolina's Republican-leaning 1st Congressional District. The candidates have poured in; two Democrats and 16 Republicans are running.
Mark Sanford, who represented this district for three terms in the U.S. House from 1995 to 2001 before being elected governor in 2002, is the GOP frontrunner. Hand-painted campaign signs underscore his reputation as a fiscal conservative.
"Folks have had a lot of fun with it," said Sanford, also a former Fox News contributor. "Ultimately, campaigns are about messages. And it's certainly a reinforcement of what people have come to know about me for 20 years."
Sanford's apparent lead comes less than four years after he secretly left the country for an extramarital affair. Several days into his 2009 disappearance, Sanford announced through a spokesman that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. But when confronted by reporters upon his return, he admitted he had actually been in Argentina visiting his mistress Maria Belen Chapur.
The revelation ultimately ended Sanford's marriage. At the time, many thought it would also end his political career. Sanford was among them.
"I, for all the obvious reasons ... thought that politics was forever over for me," said Sanford, who's now engaged to Chapur.
But when the District 1 vacancy arose, Sanford said friends convinced him he had a rare opportunity to do something about spending in Washington, using everything he had learned at the statehouse, on Capitol Hill and even from his personal scandal.
"If you go through the experience that I went through, it humbles you," Sanford said. "And I think that if there's anything that's needed in Washington, D.C., right now it's a little bit greater level of humility from either party's perspective in where they're coming from."
While Sanford runs on his experience, fellow Republican Teddy Turner, the son of billionaire media mogul and CNN founder Ted Turner, is running against the political establishment.
"We can't send more politicians to Washington," Turner said. "It's the definition of insanity -- doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result."
As a high school economics teacher, Turner is no career politician. However, his family name recognition is a mixed blessing for a Republican trying to distance himself from his father's liberal views.
"I've had a lot of access to a lot of great things in my life because of my father," Turner said. "That part is a huge asset. I am who I am because of him. But in a political race, it makes it a lot more difficult because people assume they know who you are. Just they hear the name. They assume. And they also assume, unfortunately, that I'm liberal."
Turner is not the only candidate with a famous family member. On the Democratic side, political satirist and comedian Stephen Colbert is bringing his star power to the campaign of his sister, Elizabeth Colbert Busch.
"With 11 brothers and sisters, you'd better learn how to negotiate," Colbert Busch told reporters at a recent campaign event.
Colbert Busch faces an uphill battle running as a Democrat in a district that favors Republicans. However, her career in maritime trade and involvement in economic development initiatives have earned the respect of many in the business community, according to Kendra Stewart, a political science professor at the College of Charleston.
"There's a lot of Yankee Republicans in this district who are more concerned with fiscal issues than social issues," Stewart said. "So, they would be much more willing to consider a candidate who wasn't terribly left-leaning, but was a Democrat who had good business values and maybe a little more fiscally conservative."
Colbert Busch has another advantage in that she faces only one Democratic challenger in the March 19 special primary, perennial candidate Ben Frasier. But with 16 contenders vying for the GOP nomination, it's unlikely any Republican will pass the 50 percent of the vote threshold needed to avoid a runoff on April 2.
Colbert Busch "can step back and save all her money and watch the Republicans slug it out, while she capitalizes on their attacks on each other," Stewart said.
"We need to pass a budget," said Republican candidate Larry Grooms, who currently serves in the South Carolina State Senate. "It needs to be a responsible budget. And we need to learn to live within our budget. That's not happening in Washington."
All the candidates agree fiscal responsibility is a key issue in this race. The debate is over which candidate is uniquely qualified to make it happen in Washington.
Other candidates in the Republican field include environmental consultant Keith Blandford; former Charleston County Councilman Curtis Bostic; engineer Ric Bryant; military prosecutor Jonathan Hoffman; systems engineer Jeff King; former State Sen. John Kuhn; defense contractor Tim Larkin; State Rep. Chip Limehouse; State Rep. Peter McCoy; Charleston County school board member Elizabeth Moffly; former Dorchester County Sheriff Ray Nash; State Rep. and former Secret Service agent Andy Patrick; and attorney Shawn Pinkston.
"I believe in duty," said Pinkston, an Army veteran who served in Iraq. "I believe in putting the country's interest above my own."
The winners of South Carolina's 1st District primaries will face each other in a general election on May 7.