Mark Sanford’s remarkable victory Tuesday night over Elizabeth Colbert Busch in the special election in South Carolina’s First Congressional District marked a tremendous comeback against long odds.

Colbert Busch had outraised Sanford by roughly $1.4 million to $1 million, a gap that was radically widened by roughly $1 million in spending by her party and assorted PACs, particularly the liberal House Majority PAC. Against that, Sanford had only one outside group assisting him at any significant scale, and that came just in the last week of the campaign – our organization, Independent Women’s Voice.

This wasn’t a race we had planned to become involved in, even though Sanford had signed our Repeal Pledge on Obamacare (which includes de-funding it and slowing implementation however possible), and Busch, unsurprisingly, had not.

But when, three weeks prior to the election, the news broke that Sanford’s ex-wife had filed a complaint that he had repeatedly trespassed onto her property in contravention of their divorce settlement, the NRCC announced it would have nothing more to do with the race, and what should have been a reliably anti-Obamacare House vote was put at risk.

Five days later, Public Policy Polling reported that Sanford’s standing had dropped precipitously and that he trailed Busch by 50-41 percent despite it being a heavily Republican district that had voted for Mitt Romney by 18 points. According to the survey, it appeared Republicans and Independents had had it and simply did not want to vote for Sanford.

We were concerned about the possibility of a Colbert Busch victory on several levels:

  • In the short term, there will be extremely important budget and policy votes this year, particularly on Obamacare, and each vote will count.
  • Medium term, we were concerned about the psychological/morale aspect of a Colbert Busch victory – the left wouldn’t say, “awe shucks, it’s just that they had a flawed candidate.” Instead, they would have crowed that they just defeated a former governor of a very Republican state and proclaimed continued mandates and momentum from 2012. And that classic “special election momentum” would come at just the time when the national party committees are focusing on recruiting for the crucial 2014 midterms: a Sanford loss could have made liberal efforts to recruit good candidates easier, and made conservative efforts to recruit good candidates harder.
  • Longer term, we were not so convinced that once elected, Colbert Busch would be easy to beat in 2014. However conservative the district, a woman who comes across as moderate, has local celebrity, and is buttressed by lots of money won’t be quite as easy to dislodge as conventional wisdom seemed to think. Case in point: special-election victor Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), who had far fewer qualifications than Colbert Busch, and was supposed to be easily beaten, has held her putatively Republican seat for twenty years now. It seemed a far better option to try to beat Sanford in a 2014 primary, should that be warranted, than try to defeat her in a general election.
  • Strategically, and particularly after our frustrating inability in 2012 to persuade Republican campaigns or any of the large aggregating outside groups to use Obamacare as an issue against liberals, we wanted to see if the health law remained as powerful an issue as we believe it continues to be.

Before wasting resources, however, on what was universally seen as a race that was essentially over, we decided to see if we could move the needle. We messaged to 10,000 likely voting Republican and Independent households for four days, then went into the field to see if there were any differences between a control group and our message recipients.

Of the six messages tested – all of which worked – one stood out in particular, having a plus-36-point impact on the ballot test: that Colbert Busch had refused to sign the repeal pledge on Obamacare.

Yet, despite that, we’d only moved the ballot test by 6 points – resistance to voting for Sanford was strong. But, still, we had moved it a not insignificant number in a race where every vote would count.

Given the reluctance to vote for Sanford, we believed this race was a very long shot, longer even than when we undertook to make Scott Brown’s candidacy in the 2010 Massachusetts special Senatorial election be about health care and the 41st vote. But we decided it was worth at least knowing we tried.

As we said to supporters at the time, we knew that: 1) Without outside help, Sanford would not win; 2) Our messaging worked; 3) This wasn’t about Sanford but about whether a free market conservative or a liberal would hold the seat for potentially a long time; 4) With sufficient effort we believed our messaging could stop the free fall, help Sanford rally, and even turn the tables.

Accordingly, IWV spent about $250,000 in the last week of the campaign. About $160,000 went to broadcast and cable television (about 500 Gross Ratings Points’ worth) and print advertising, buttressed by live GOTV calls. Additionally – taking special care with South Carolina’s rather restrictive laws on auto-dialed phone calls – we supplemented that with innovative, non-advocacy, factual, interactive quiz calls (which were not push polls, but used the same documented information conveyed in our ads). There was no red meat. We believe voters, particularly our voters, are pretty smart, and that people didn’t need us to tell them what to think. They just needed to be made aware of relevant facts on issues they care about, like Obamacare repeal, and why turning out to vote is so important.

As our last ad – done with local grassroots, published in the Charleston Post & Courier, and signed by over 200 resident women – said: “We are your mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, co-workers, neighbors and friends. We stand on principle. We vote on the issues. Tomorrow’s election is vital to the future of our country, and given the choice before us, we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We support Mark Sanford. Please vote Mark Sanford tomorrow.”

And they did.

Heather Higgins is President and CEO of Independent Women’s Voice; William W. Pascoe III consults on political strategy with IWV.