CHARLESTON — With the national spotlight on the race for a congressional seat in South Carolina, state Republican Party Chairman Chad Connelly has no doubt that former Gov. Mark Sanford will defeat Elizabeth Colbert Busch in next month’s special election for the 1st District.

“We’ll hold the seat. I’m not concerned,” Connelly said during a recent interview with The Associated Press. Connelly was in town for the GOP primary runoff debate between Sanford and opponent Curtis Bostic.

Connelly noted Mitt Romney won the heavily Republican district by 18 points last fall. As party chairman, he likes the national media attention.

“There’s nothing else going on. There is no other election so there is all this focus on South Carolina. As a South Carolinian, I love it,” he said.

Connelly, a businessman from Newberry who has long been active in party politics, was elected state chairman in May 2011.

Two years earlier, Sanford disappeared from the state while governor for five days only to return and confess an extramarital affair with an Argentine woman to whom he is now engaged. The incident derailed his political career and his wife Jenny divorced him.

Asked about the effect of Sanford’s indiscretions, Connelly said: “I’m glad I don’t have to make those kinds of calls. The voters will.”

“What will decide it is whether people believe in authenticity and sincerity. They look real to me. He’s not hiding and they are certainly asking questions,” Connelly said.

He said he will work to make sure the state retains its position in 2016 of holding the first-in-the-South GOP presidential primary. In 2012, a 30-year string of the primary winner going on to win the GOP nomination was snapped when voters selected Newt Gingrich.

“It’s still a pretty good track record and Romney didn’t win the presidency, so I’m not sure it messes up our record quite as much,” Connelly said, adding the primary is important to both the state and candidates nationally because it helps candidates hone their campaign ground games.

“We’re important because we’re a small state that candidates can crisscross. The media markets are inexpensive enough so whether you are well-known and funded or not you can compete here,” he said.

That ground game is important to national success, he said.

“Republicans didn’t lose (in 2012) because we got outspent this time. We didn’t lose because we didn’t have as good TV ads as I heard some people say four years ago. We lost because we got our tails beat on the ground,” he said.

“We need more South Carolina campaigning nationwide,” Connelly added. “We need to connect with the voters. I believe in our principles, but if we are not communicating those to someone it doesn’t matter.”

There’s a perception nationally that Republicans tend to toe a hard line, he said.

“Really it’s all about relationships. You can’t go parachuting in and have a three or four month campaign, Connelly said. “There have to be relationships and they have to be real. It’s hard to be angry at someone when you get to know them. I think that’s the way to get things done.”