Disgraced politician Mark Sanford has a chance to make a political comeback Tuesday as he vies for South Carolina's 1st congressional district seat, one which he claimed in 1994 and held until 2001. The former governor is competing in a crowded special election primary against 15 other Republican candidates poised to fill the seat vacated by Tim Scott’s December appointment to the Senate.
Mark Sanford is not the first embattled politician to try and seek redemption by spinning a negative personal event into a political win. In fact, it was even done in Sanford’s state of South Carolina by Newt Gingrich during the 2012 presidential primary debate. When CNN’s John King asked Gingrich last January to respond to allegations that he asked his ex-wife for an open marriage, Gingrich said, “no but I will." He continued, “I think the destructive vicious negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. I’m appalled you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.”
“Newt parlayed that question about his open marriage request into a win in the primary,” said Cycle co-host Krystal Ball Tuesday. Gingrich's defiant response was “one of the most amazing moments,” Ball said, in how he was able to spin a potentially damning topic into a huge applause line and a victory.
Sanford must now add a similar spin to his own personal story. Almost four years ago Sanford revealed he was having an affair with an Argentine woman, and not as he had told his staff, hiking the Appalachian Trail. This scandal rocked South Carolina and pushed him to leave the political scene two years later.
Sanford re-emerged to South Carolina's political scene when he announced in January he planned to run for Rep. Tim Scott's seat in Congress. And now, years after the scandal, Sanford is asking for forgiveness. In his first TV ad in the district he said, “I have experienced how none of us go through life without mistakes, but in their wake we can learn a lot about grace, a God of second chances, and be the better for it.”
According to The State, “Sanford is expected to take about a third of the Republican vote and slide into a first-place finish. But he is not expected to take a majority, making an April 2 runoff against today’s second-place finisher likely.”
One thing that could be working in Sanford’s favor along his political apology tour is that he married the Argentine woman he was caught having an affair with, Cycle co-host S.E. Cupp said. “Perhaps it makes it easier, this scandalous blunt in a bit, the fact that he married the mistress. It sort of makes that whole thing more powerful,” she said. Fellow co-host Steve Kornacki believes Sanford is in a decent position to win-over constituents. “If you look at his job approval number it was decent overall and it was very strong among Republicans,” Kornacki said of Sanford's time in office.
Currently, Sanford faces an uphill battle to win the primary election outright by claiming the necessary 50% of the vote. With such a crowded field of 16 Republican candidates to split the district's votes, chances of an April 2 runoff seem increasingly likely.
Polls in close South Carolina at 7 p.m. Sanford will be awaiting the results at Molly Darcy’s Irish Grill and Pub with supporters in Charleston.