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First Thoughts: The 'Seinfeld' special election

The “Seinfeld” special election in SC… Sanford vs. Colbert Busch is entertaining, but it means absolutely nothing for 2014 or 2016… What will decide the close race: GOP and African-American turnout… Polls close at 7:00 pm ET… A sign for 2016? Chris Christie has weight surgery… When will the budget negotiations truly begin?... Republicans vs. Republicans on immigration… Democrats vs. Democrats on guns… And Benghazi surfaces again.

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd reports on the latest in the race between Elizabeth Colbert Busch and Mark Sanford. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell joins the conversation.

*** The “Seinfeld” special election: On the one hand, you couldn’t dream of a more entertaining and colorful special congressional election featuring a disgraced politician (Republican former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford) and the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert (Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch). On the other hand, it’s a race that appears to signify, well, nothing, especially as it relates to 2014 and 2016. If Sanford wins -- in a district where Mitt Romney beat President Obama by 18 percentage points, 58%-40% -- it will be due simply to the district’s GOP tilt. And if Colbert Bush wins, it will be due simply to Sanford’s flaws and past baggage. As political observer Charlie Cook writes, “If Sanford wins by any kind of margin, it means that Republican voters simply held their noses and voted for him anyway. If Colbert Busch wins, it most likely means that a lot of Republicans chose to stay home rather than vote for either a candidate whom they thoroughly disapprove of or one with whom they thoroughly disagree.” Folks, this is the “Seinfeld” special election: It’s entertaining as heck, but it means absolutely nothing.

*** The two factors to watch: That said, the toss-up election hinges on two things. One, do Republicans and conservative voters turn out? If they do, Sanford is going to win; if they don’t, he’ll lose. Two, do African-American voters show up? “In the 2010 general election, African-American participation was about 18%. If it's that strong Tuesday, Colbert-Bush may win,” longtime GOP political consultant Richard Quinn told MSNBC’s Jessica Taylor. Polls close at 7:00 pm ET, and the congressional contest is to replace Republican Tim Scott, whom Gov. Nikki Haley (R) appointed to serve in the U.S. Senate.

Randall Hill / Reuters

Former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford makes a point to the moderators during a debate with Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch in Charleston, S.C. April 29, 2013.

*** Sanford’s ups and downs: As MSNBC’s Taylor points out, Sanford’s political career “has had more ups and downs than the mountains of the Appalachian Trail.” Just consider: He was a one-time conservative star (and potential 2012 presidential candidate) bucking the Obama administration on the stimulus. Then he disappeared from the state in 2009, telling his staff he was hiking the Appalachian Trail -- only to be discovered that he was in Argentina with his mistress, whom he later called his “soul mate.” Sanford left office after paying an ethics fine for state travel. But a year later, his protégé -- Nikki Haley -- became governor. Then this year in 2013, he ran for his old House seat, winning the GOP run-off for the nomination. Afterwards, more adversity surfaced: An AP report showed that his ex-wife, Jenny Sanford, accused him of trespassing. Now? He finds himself in a toss-up contest. Later tonight, we’ll find out if Sanford truly revived his political career or if it’s officially over.

*** Christie weighing his options? New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who’s  up for re-election this year, told the New York Post that he secretly had "lap-band stomach surgery" to lose weight. From the article: "He told The Post he was thinking of his four kids and how it was time to start improving his health when he decided to have the procedure. 'I've struggled with this issue for 20 years,' he said. 'For me, this is about turning 50 and looking at my children and wanting to be there for them.'  He also insisted that, contrary to what observers may say, the effort to slim down was not motivated by thoughts of a presidential bid. 'It's so much more important than that,' he said." The Post adds that Christie checked into a surgery center on Feb. 16 -- under a false name -- to undergo the procedure.  If this isn’t a sign he’s thinking about running for president, we don’t know what is. Remember, Christie had previously said that his health was pretty good… In fact, he called himself one of the healthiest fat guys in the country. So if this is for health reasons, then he wasn’t totally forthright before. For what it’s worth, we know the issue of his weight has been discussed with him by supporters and consultants as a political issue, and that it’s something he needed to deal with in some form if he ever did decide to run for national office.

*** When will the budget negotiations truly begin? Yesterday, there were two interesting moving parts as it relates to budget debate. The first: President Obama golfed with two Senate Republicans (retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss and Sen. Bob Corker) who are viewed as POTENTIAL partners on a possible budget deal. The second development: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, frustrated by Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) objection to go to a House-Senate conference on the budget, called the freshman senator “a schoolyard bully,” Politico reports. “‘My friend from Texas is like the schoolyard bully,’ Reid said. ‘He pushes everybody around and is losing, and instead of playing the game according to the rules, he not only takes the ball home with him but changes the rules. That way no one wins except the bully who tries to indicate to people he has won. We’re asking Republicans to play by the rules and let us go to conference.’” And these two moving parts raise this question: When do the budget negotiations, if they’re ever going to happen, begin? At a conference committee? (Republicans, despite their demand for regular order, appear to be resisting that. Not only on the Senate side, but House Republicans haven’t exactly been aggressive in trying to get the conference started.) So does that mean there will be formal talks outside of GOP leadership? That’s the White House hope. They have targeted the Georgia and Tennessee GOP senators (Isakson, Chambliss, Corker and Alexander) as credible negotiating partners. If the negotiations are going to occur, they need to start taking place soon. It’s now May.  

*** Republicans vs. Republicans on immigration: Immigration has become a political battle … solely on the right. NBC’s Carrie Dann: “A new study from the conservative Heritage Foundation estimates that granting a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants will cost US taxpayers at least $6.3 trillion. Heritage Foundation scholar Robert Rector co-authored the long-anticipated study, which is sure to be cited frequently by foes of the immigration reform effort as lawmakers take up legislation to overhaul the nation’s system. But the study also drew swift criticism from Republicans supporting the reform effort, who called the Heritage Foundation's estimate politicized, exaggerated and flawed in its methodology.” In fact, check out this comment from former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R): “The Heritage Foundation document is a political document; it’s not a very serious analysis… This study is designed to try to scare conservative Republicans into thinking the cost here is going to be so gigantic that you can’t possibly be for it.”

*** Democrats vs. Democrats on guns: Is Mayors Against Illegal Guns turning into the Club for Growth, or as First Read called them back in 2009, The Club for (Democratic) Growth? Politico reports that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s staff has tried to persuade the Bloomberg-backed group not to target vulnerable Democrats in red states on guns because it could lead to a shrinking majority or make it easier for a Republican takeover of the Senate. “It didn’t work,” Politico notes. “Ads from the Bloomberg-funded Mayors Against Illegal Guns are going up soon in Alaska, Arkansas and North Dakota — three states with Democratic senators who broke with the White House on last month’s background checks vote.”

*** Benghazi surfaces again: And speaking of political battles, the GOP-led House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will be holding a hearing on the Benghazi attack on Wednesday. And here’s the news that has already leaked out: “A small team of Special Forces operatives was ready to fly from Tripoli to Benghazi last year after Libyan insurgents attacked the U.S. mission there, but was told it was not authorized to board the flight by regional military commanders, according to a career State Department official scheduled to testify before Congress on Wednesday,” per NBC’s Lisa Myers. This career State Department official -- Gregory Hicks -- seems like a credible witness (though he’s represented by high-powered GOP lawyers Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing). The thing to watch on Wednesday is whether Hicks’ testimony reveals that all the attention on Benghazi is MORE than a politically motivated investigation into not only the Obama White House but also the Hillary Clinton-led State Department. At a minimum, one thing this investigation has revealed is that there was an attempt to change the initial talking points regarding what happened. Question now is who was pushing for this change at the time? Was it the White House or was it State? Seems like there is more evidence that this was a bigger issue for State than for the White House. Of course, within a few days, the talking points became out of date and moot.

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