Let’s face it: The current House election between Mark Sanford and Elizabeth Colbert Busch is turning very strange. Sanford’s unconventional tactics, and a few other factors, give the race the potential to be right up there in the pantheon of bizarre election contests.
In case you missed it, Sanford, South Carolina’s former governor, is running against the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert to fill a vacant House seat. Sanford left office after acknowledging an extramarital affair while he was governor, which included a trip while in office to Argentina to see his mistress.
Colbert Busch is a university administrator and first-time candidate running as a Democrat, running against Sanford in a heavily Republican area. The contest is happening because former representative Tim Scott moved to the Senate, to replace Tea Party icon Jim DeMint. Article 1, Section 2, of the Constitution specifies that special elections are held to fill vacant House seats.
The election race has already had some odd moments—here’s how it compares, so far, to other unusual elections.
1. Mark Sanford takes on a life-sized Pelosi cutout
Sanford’s unconventional strategy includes hitting the campaign trail with a huge cutout figure of House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and debating the paper Pelosi at campaign stops. Then, at the one debate between Sanford and Colbert Busch, the former governor pretended to not hear a reference by Colbert Busch to his extramarital affair—drawing catcalls from the audience. In another odd twist, Hustler publisher Larry Flynt has endorsed Sanford in the race.
2. The Terminator becomes governor
The gold standard of odd political races is the 2003 California governor’s recall election that saw actor Arnold Schwarzenegger win office. Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy on The Tonight Show. After litigation, drama, and more drama, voters recalled Gray Davis and picked Schwarzenegger from a list that included the then-Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, independent Arianna Huffington (who dropped from the race after a debate), Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, former child star Gary Coleman, porn star Mary Carey, and the comedian Gallagher.
3. Ulysses S. Grant defeats a dead candidate for president
President Grant faced a major problem as he ran for re-election in 1872: a major split within his own political party. The breakaway Liberal Republicans nominated a celebrity in his own day, Horace Greeley, to oppose Grant. The Democrats decided to also nominate Greeley.
But the campaign was a disaster; Greeley was a poor public speaker and his running mate, Benjamin Gratz Brown, may have had a public drinking problem. Grant won the election easily, and then Greeley died in a sanitarium before the Electoral College counted the votes.
4. A dead candidate wins a U.S. Senate seat
Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan was engaged in a tight campaign for the U.S. Senate against John Ashcroft, the former U.S. attorney general in 2000. Three weeks before the election, Carnahan died in a plane crash a day before a scheduled debate against Ashcroft.
The state’s law would not allow for Carnahan’s name to be removed from the ballot, and the campaign continued on. Voters selected Carnahan over Ashcroft, and Carnahan’s wife was named by the state’s acting governor to serve until a special election could be held.
5. A pro wrestler becomes governor, too
Jesse “The Body” Ventura was a former professional wrestler who also served as the mayor of Brooklyn Park, a city of 70,000 people near Minneapolis. Ventura shook up the 1998 Minnesota governor’s race by running as a candidate for the Reform Party (which was founded in 1995 by Ross Perot).
Ventura was seen as a novelty candidate, but he used a small budget and several high-profile appearances to boost his chances against frontrunners Norm Coleman and Hubert Humphrey III. The Body had the last laugh as he passed Coleman and won a narrow victory.
6. Gopher wins a congressional seat
Actor Fred Grandy raised eyebrows when the Love Boat star decided to run for a House seat in Iowa in 1986, even though most people knew him from his role as “Gopher” on the ABC TV show.
Grandy embraced his TV past, saying, “If there were no Gopher, there would be no Fred Grandy for Congress.” In fact, Grandy had impressive political credentials in the Republican Party. He was a former speechwriter and a Harvard grad.
Grandy served four terms in Congress and today remains active in politics.
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7. Cat wins mayoral race in Alaska
It’s been more than 15 years since Mayor Stubbs won office in Talkeetna, Alaska. The part-manx cat has been a model mayor since running as a kitten. The 900 residents of the tourist town have promoted Stubbs as a must-see attraction, and he greets visitors daily—if he isn’t on Facebook with his 29,000 followers.
8. The Rent Is Too Damn High Party steals the debate
The 2010 gubernatorial race in New York saw Andrew Cuomo win a high-profile election that will be remembered for a wide-open debate.
Jimmy McMillan, the candidate of the Rent Is Too Damn High Party, stole the debate with a series of comments that went viral on the Internet. Cuomo won the election easily, but McMillian came in fifth—surpassing the vote total for the Anti-Prohibition Party candidate Kristin M. Davis (the former Manhattan Madam in the Eliot Spitzer scandal).
9. Ross Perot implodes on the campaign trail
In the 1992 presidential race, independent candidate Ross Perot led public opinion polls heading into the summer, outpacing President George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Then everything came apart for Perot in July.
First, Perot’s popularity numbers started to fall. After a key adviser quit, Perot stunned supporters by quitting the race, claiming he didn’t want to throw it into the House of Representatives. Then, Perot jumped back into the race in the fall, saying the real reason he quit was that political opponents were planning to ruin his daughter’s wedding. A shaky debate performance by vice presidential candidate James Stockdale added to his woes.
10. Wilbur Mills wins despite stripper incident
Mills was the powerful head of the House Committee on Ways and Means. In October 1974, about a month before his re-election race, police found Mills in a car without its lights on. He appeared to be intoxicated. Then, Fanne Foxe, a local stripper, jumped out of the car and into the Tidal Basin. The scandal made national headlines.
Mills was able to win his election, despite the incident, with 60 percent of the vote. But after another incident, where Mills appeared at a press conference held in Foxe’s dressing room at a burlesque hall, he resigned his chairmanship. After leaving Congress, Mills became an advocate for programs to treat alcoholism.
Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.
- Politics & Government
- Mark Sanford
- Elizabeth Colbert Busch
- Stephen Colbert
- Arnold Schwarzenegger
- Horace Greeley
- John Ashcroft
- Ross Perot
- Fred Grandy
- Gary Coleman