Mark Sanford’s political career has had more ups and downs than the mountains of the Appalachian Trail.
But if the GOP nominee pulls off a win in tonight’s bitter special election in South Carolina’s 1st District over Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch -- as many in both parties now increasingly expect--it will be just another example of how the awkward yet undeniably gifted politician has defied the political odds yet again.
According to observers in the always tumultuous Palmetto State, it’s been part luck, one part candidate skill on Sanford’s part.
“On the stump, in debates and in giving media interviews, Sanford is quirky and OK at best,” said longtime South Carolina GOP strategist Richard Quinn. “But he is a gifted performer in 30-second TV spots, one of the best. He can do a 30-second, eyes-to-camera delivery like no one else."
That skill was a turning point in the GOP primary, with Sanford airing a crucial early ad, talking direct-to-camera, asking for forgiveness from voters for the sex scandal that marred his career as governor. In the spot, Sanford said that from his mistakes he’d “learn[ed] a lot about grace, a God of second chances and be the better for it.”
Once considered a rising star in the GOP and even mentioned as a potential 2012 presidential candidate, most wrote Sanford’s political obituary when he disappeared from the state for a week in 2009, telling his staff he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. Instead, in a teary press conference upon his return, he said he had been in Argentina with his mistress. The fallout wasn’t much better, with Sanford calling the other woman his “soul mate.” His wife, Jenny, moved out of the governor’s mansion with their four sons, and the two divorced.
But politically, Sanford managed to avoid the fate of other disgraced pols, and did finish out his term. Partly because, to many Republicans in the state, the alternative may have been worse in their eyes. Sanford resigning would have meant Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer would have ascended to power--and gotten a leg up in the upcoming gubernatorial primary. But Bauer was possibly more controversial among the GOP establishment, with a long history of controversial antics and statements.
But that doesn’t mean the legislature, with whom he’d often clashed, didn’t get a say. Sanford was censured, paid an ethics fine over state travel, and reimbursed the state for a trade mission trip to Buenos Aires.
Sanford’s frequent fights with the GOP-held legislature were well-documented. He filed a federal lawsuit against the General Assembly when they passed a budget forcing him to accept stimulus funds. Sanford vetoed over 100 bills in one legislative session as his way to cut spending--and the House overrode nearly all over them. Taking the metaphor literally, he brought two piglets named “Pork” and “Barrel” onto the State House floor to show his opposition to pork barrel spending. And in 2006, Sanford vetoed the legislature’s entire budget--only to have lawmakers override it.
“The contentious relationship with his own legislature was by his own creation,” said Palmetto State GOP strategist Warren Tompkins. “Instead of taking 90%, he kept demanding 100%--and nobody gets that. It tore apart the party apart a lot. We still aren’t healed from the contentiousness that prevailed for eight years while he was governor."
CONGRESS A WELCOME RESPITE FROM GOV. MANSION?
Maybe that’s why Sanford may find himself more at home in Congress again than in the governor’s mansion. His fiscally strict ways, once making him a pariah when he represented the 1st District previously, now have a home in the Tea Party wing. And if he were elected, he would now have similarly fiscally conservative friends in the rest of South Carolina’s House delegation, including GOP sophomore Reps. Mick Mulvaney, Trey Gowdy and Jeff Duncan.
Sanford’s biggest task was winning the GOP primary in this district President Obama lost by 18 points last fall. But everything was working in his favor--he had high name recognition, the most money, and benefited from a crowded primary where there was no clear, strong Sanford alternative. Many strategists once skeptical of Sanford’s viability in a general election came to praise Sanford’s campaign and were optimistic after his primary and runoff victory. He had successfully turned the primary into a referendum on redemption.
Then, came the proverbial October surprise. An AP report showed his ex-wife had accused him of trespassing at her home in February, and he has a court date for the charges later this week. Sanford pushed back, saying he had just been watching the Super Bowl with his son while Jenny was out of town. But then another report that the first time one of his sons had met his former mistress, now fiance, was at his primary victory party, didn’t help his cause. Blindsided by the trespassing charges, the National Republican Congressional Committee pulled their funding.
After that, Sanford pursued a campaign strategy that was unconventional, at best. When Colbert Busch would agree to only one debate, he debated a cardboard cutout of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi instead. He decried the money national Democrats poured into the contest, and took out a lengthy full page ad in the local paper explaining the trespassing scandal. And every chance he got, he equated his Democratic opponent with the unpopular Pelosi, hoping that, eventually, the GOP leaning of the district would win out. Instead of the general election being a referendum on redemption, it was now one on Pelosi and the Democratic Party--that may have hurt Colbert Busch’s attempt to paint herself as a political independent.
Now, Republicans think that seemingly bizarre strategy has paid off, and GOP voters are coming home.
Democrats “in the final days have painted a big ‘D’ on [Colbert Busch’s] candidacy, at at time when she badly needed to be branded as an ‘I,’” said Quinn. “National Democrats attacking Sanford may have helped push this race toward traditional party voting patterns.”
As Sanford has acknowledged himself, if he loses tonight, his political career is over. If he does win, he may well face primary opposition, and he’ll be a political bogeyman for Democrats.
But his once unlikely political comeback could have a happy ending--for now--and be yet another step in a political career that’s defied both his party and the odds time and time again.