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Democrats have their best chance in more than three decades to win a congressional seat in South Carolina. Former GOP Governor Mark Sanford faces Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch in Tuesday's special election. As NPR's Kathy Lohr reports, Democrats want to turn the heavily Republican district into a long-term victory for their party.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: The 1st Congressional District includes Charleston and hugs the coast down to Hilton Head. Voters haven't elected a Democrat here since 1978. But Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the Democratic candidate and sister of comedian Stephen Colbert, touts herself as an independent voice. At this week's debate, she distanced herself from President Obama's federal health care law, calling it, quote, "extremely problematic."

ELIZABETH COLBERT BUSCH: It is expensive. It is a $500 billion higher cost than we originally anticipated. It's cutting into Medicare benefits, and it's having companies lay off their employees because they're worried about the costs of it.

LOHR: Some national Republicans picked up on that statement as proof of the Democrats' struggle. They predict that could lead to GOP gains in the House next year. But Democrats disagree.

JESSE FERGUSON: All of our candidates run and fit the values of the districts that they're going to represent, and that's especially true here.

LOHR: Jesse Ferguson is a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. This group and a Democratic superPAC has spent nearly a million in this race on her behalf. Ferguson says this election proves the party can make inroads in some very conservative districts.

FERGUSON: There are 119 Republican-held seats that are more Democratic than this one. If we can win here, it tells you there are a lot of Republican districts that we can win.

LOHR: National Republicans pulled out of the race after Sanford's ex-wife, Jenny, accused him of trespassing at her home. This refocused the campaign on the former governor's 2009 affair with a woman in Argentina and his efforts to cover it up. That episode is fodder for a barrage of TV ads. This one features a Republican woman who says she can't back Sanford.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I was mortified, angry, embarrassed, betrayed. I'm a Republican, but Mark Sanford just doesn't share our values.

LOHR: Still, some of the GOP establishment does support Sanford. He picked up endorsements this week from South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and from the state's U.S. senators, Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham. And the former governor kicked off TV ads that say electing him is a way to stop the Democrats nationally.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

MARK SANFORD: I fought hard over the years to make South Carolina a better place to call home, but those efforts pale now against the larger battle for the direction of our country. Maybe that's why Nancy Pelosi and allies have spent more than a million dollars to defeat me.

LOHR: Republicans say even if they lose the seat this year, they believe they can easily win it back. The Democrats need to pick up 17 seats next year to take control of the House from the GOP. Political science professor at the College of Charleston, Kendra Stewart, says a win here won't change the balance but would count as a symbolic victory for whichever party prevails.

KENDRA STEWART: The Democrats need this seat to demonstrate that they can still win seats in the South, even though they haven't in quite some time. And for the Republicans, maintaining control sends the message that they still are the party of the South.

LOHR: At an NAACP voter forum in Goose Creek in the Charleston suburbs, voters including says chapter president David Cakley say there is some excitement around the Democrats having a real shot to win this seat.

DAVID CAKLEY: This will be tough for her, but if she plays her cards correctly, and just knowing that she has the support of her base, and hopefully she can conduct herself in the moderate manner, so that's why I think that Mrs. Colbert Busch has an opportunity.

LOHR: There is just one white Democrat left in Congress from the Deep South. That's Georgia Congressman John Barrow. With the Republican-dominated state legislatures having recently redrawn congressional boundaries, Democrats face a tough challenge in 2014. But if they win here, it gets them one closer, and they say investing the money to defend the seat would become a priority. Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Charleston.

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