From the Appalachian Trail to the halls of Congress

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In the end, South Carolina’s congressional special election wasn’t that close after all. Former Gov. Mark Sanford (R) overcame his scandals and won by nine points over Elizabeth Colbert Busch (D), 54% to 45%. In the process, we witnessed one of the more unexpected political comebacks in recent memory.

As we discussed in March, after serving three unremarkable terms in Congress, Sanford was elected governor twice, and in 2008, was widely considered a top contender for his party’s vice presidential nomination. By early 2009, the governor appeared to be laying the groundwork for a likely presidential campaign. Those plans were derailed in June 2009, when Sanford, a “family-values conservative,” confessed to having an extra-marital affair with an Argentinian woman. The governor had lied about his activities, misused public funds, violated state ethics guidelines, and was censured by state lawmakers from his own party.

That didn’t stop him, though, from running for Congress again when a House vacancy opened up unexpectedly. Sanford was far from the ideal candidate – he was caught trespassing at his ex-wife’s home – but managed to overcome his many problems, thanks in large part to the “R” after his name.

And that’s ultimately why this race was a fascinating drama, which doesn’t really amount to much. Ordinarily, pundits love to ponder the “what does this mean” question, but it’s hard to draw any sweeping conclusions from the results.

It’s a heavily Republican district in a heavily Republican state that replaced one conservative Republican politician with another. That Colbert Busch – a political novice running her first-ever campaign – was competitive at all is proof that quite a few voters in the district remained troubled by Sanford’s personal misconduct, hypocrisy, and dishonesty.

That said, no one is seriously arguing this morning, “If Democrats couldn’t win here, they’re in big trouble.”

Indeed, Chris Cillizza argued the other day that a Sanford win puts Republicans in an awkward position.

His initial defense of his 2009 absence – Sanford told staff he was “hiking the Appalachian Trail” (thereby ruining any actual hiking trips for married men everywhere) – became a national story and made the then-governor a punchline for late-night comedians.

A Sanford victory puts that guy in the House Republican Conference. That means that not only do the late-night jokes start again but, more importantly, every GOPer in the House and Senate will be asked whether they support Sanford and what they think of serving with him.

That reality is why the National Republican Congressional Committee essentially washed its collective hands of Sanford once the trespassing revelations went public. The party establishment wanted (and wants) to make clear that they have nothing to do with Sanford. It won’t matter. The narrative that Republicans have a woman problem will have new life – with little the GOP leadership can do about it.

I suspect House GOP leaders will go out of their way to push Sanford into obscurity, since they clearly don’t see the value in having him maintain a high national profile, but let’s not forget that Sanford now owes his party establishment nothing – they abandoned him when he asked for their help.

Boehner & Co. would probably prefer that the guy just go away, but Representative-elect Sanford no longer has any interest in their preferences.

As for a possible larger lesson to be learned from South Carolina’s 1st congressional district, it’s probably this: if you’re a far-right politician who commits adultery after touting “family values,” make sure you’re running in a deep-red district.

Mark Sanford and South Carolina

From the Appalachian Trail to the halls of Congress

Updated