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House GOP campaign drops Mark Sanford

National Republicans are pulling out of former South Carolina Gov.
Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford answers questions from reporters after voting in Charleston, S.C., on Tuesday, April 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Bruce Smith)
Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford answers questions from reporters after voting in Charleston, S.C., on Tuesday, April 2, 2013.

National Republicans are pulling out of former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's campaign less than three weeks ahead of his congressional special election, all because of a complaint filed by his ex-wife Jenny Sullivan that he had trespassed on her home.

According to an Associated Press report late Tuesday, Jenny Sanford filed a complaint after she confronted her ex-husband on Feb. 3 leaving her home, using his cell phone as a flashlight.

Sanford is expected in court to answer to the complaint just two days after his highly competitive May 7 special election against Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert. While the Charleston-area district leans Republican, Sanford’s image following his affair and disappearance from the state when he was governor have made this race much closer than Republicans would like.

But for national Republicans, who were weighing whether to get involved in the race, the report on Tuesday was the last straw.

According to a source at the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign committee was completely blindsided by the Sanford news and were incredibly upset not just over the incident but by the lack of advance warning. Now, they won’t be spending any money to help the former governor, leaving him to defend himself on air. It’s a similar move to the one Senate Republicans were forced to make last year when Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., made controversial comments over rape and abortion during the Missouri Senate debate.

In a statement on Wednesday, Mark Sanford said he was simply watching football with his son when Jenny was out of town.

“I did indeed watch the second half of the Super Bowl at the beach house with our 14-year-old son because as a father I didn’t think he should watch it alone,” Sanford said in a statement. “Given [Jenny] was out of town I tried to reach her beforehand to tell her of the situation that had arisen, and met her at the back steps under the light of my cell phone when she returned and told her what had happened.”

"There is always another side to every story, and while I am particularly curious how records that were sealed to avoid the boys dealing with embarrassment are now somehow exposed less than three weeks before this election, I agree with Jenny that the media is no place to debate what is ultimately a family court matter,” Sanford continued.

It's the latest twist in the Sanford drama has the potential to shift the already fluid race, especially given the Republican’s vulnerability with women – one Colbert Busch is trying to capitalize on in her ads talking about her challenges as a single, working mother.

While Sanford’s ex-wife, Jenny, who remains very popular in the district, told Roll Call last week she wouldn’t be making a potentially kingmaking endorsement in the race, some South Carolina Republicans echo the nominee’s sentiment that there are two sides to the story, and even think the latest twist in their divorce saga could backfire – and benefit the GOP nominee.

“At some point, Mark Sanford’s going to look like a victim in this,” longtime Palmetto State GOP strategist Warren Tompkins told NBC. “Everytime [Jenny] gets an opportunity to embarrass her husband, she does.”

Other Republicans in the state weren’t so quick to take that outlook, and warned there could be much more to drop on the former governor.

“At the end of the day Jenny was doing this whether there’s a campaign or not because she deserves her privacy,” said one South Carolina GOP operative, who is close to both the Sanfords. “This isn’t the last shoe that’s going to drop on [Mark].”

“Mark Sanford asked for forgiveness, and he got it at the voting booth,” said the same strategist. “He’s marvelous at playing the victim. “

In a March Public Policy Polling (D) survey, Jenny Sanford’s approval ratings remained high, with a 55 percent favorable rating. Her husband’s numbers were upside down, with 58 percent having a negative view of the former governor and just 34 percent viewing him favorably. However, recent internal GOP polling, according to one Republican source, had shown Mark Sanford’s numbers much higher than that.

Sanford’s obvious vulnerabilities ahead of the May contest are especially tenuous with women voters, and Colbert Busch has been making an obvious play for that bloc, talking about her struggles as a working, single mother in her latest TV ad. But GOP observers in the state had hoped those voters were coming around – and now worry this latest incident could change that. The NRCC hitting Colbert Busch would have been the most effective attack and saved Sanford from having to go negative against a female candidate, but the latest twist hast now changed that.

“Republicans were coming home,” said Tompkins. “This is going to cause some fluctuation in that. I hope at the end of the day that people put personal problems out of the way and look at the fact that we know where he’s going to go and where he’s going to vote.  He plays for the right team.”

Sanford’s campaign has purchased airtime beginning today in a joint buy with the state Republican Party.  The Democratic House Majority PAC is also going up this evening with an ad buy against Sanford, which was originally slated for earlier this week but was postponed after the Boston Marathon bombing.

"There’s still an avenue for [Sanford] to win but it just got increasingly smaller," said one national Republican strategist. If no, "we’ll win it back in November."