WASHINGTON, D.C. — Two years after Mark Sanford left the South Carolina governor’s office tarred by an adultery scandal, he completed an unlikely political comeback to win a special congressional election Tuesday, holding the seat for Republicans.
Sanford defeated Democratic neophyte Elizabeth Colbert Busch, sister of the late-night satirist Stephen Colbert, in the Republican-leaning first district. He reclaims a House seat he once held for three terms.
The bitter race had been expected to be tight, but the Associated Press called it just 90 minutes after the polls closed. By the end of the night, with 100 percent of the precincts tallied, Sanford led Colbert Busch, a university official and businesswoman, by slightly more than 9 percentage points — despite her famous brother’s efforts to promote her candidacy and raise money for her. Turnout was reported at 32 percent.
The Charleston-based seat, which spans five counties along the coast, is considered reliably Republican. Mitt Romney carried the district by 18 points over Barack Obama in 2012. But national Democrats made a serious play for it after Sanford emerged as the Republican nominee.
An outspoken conservative, Sanford had been considered a presidential hopeful before he admitted cheating on his wife with an Argentine mistress whom he called his “soul mate.”
The affair came to light in 2009 when the governor vanished from public view. His staff told questioners he was hiking the Appalachian Trail alone, when in fact he was in Argentina with his mistress. That personal and professional debacle led to Sanford’s divorce.
Sanford was censured by his state’s Republican legislature and paid fines for misusing government resources connected to his affair. He rebuffed calls to resign, however, and served out his second term.
His political career appeared to be finished — until Sen. Jim DeMint’s surprise resignation from the Senate last December. Rep. Tim Scott, who represented the first district, was appointed to replace DeMint, opening up Scott’s House seat. Amid a crowded primary, Sanford’s high name recognition — warts and all—— powered him over lesser-known Republicans.
When Sanford wasn’t working to address voters’ concerns about his personal foibles, he was touting his record as a fiscal hawk as a congressman and governor. He also argued that a vote for Colbert Busch would be a vote for the agenda of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. At one point, he debated a cardboard cutout of the California congresswoman.
Sanford’s indiscretion haunted him throughout the campaign. His ex-wife, Jenny Sanford, accused him of violating their 2010 divorce settlement by trespassing at her home. National Republicans who had done little to hide their unease with Sanford quickly abandoned him, and a poll showed Colbert Busch in the lead. But that proved ephemeral.
Given the unique circumstances of the race, neither party was prepared to tout a favorable result as a potential indicator of national political trends. In fact, strategists on each side saw a potential benefit in losing.
For Republicans, a win by Colbert Busch would have ensured that a different Republican would be on the ballot in 2014 in already favorable terrain, while Democrats would be forced to spend heavily to protect the seat.
Democrats saw a potential upside in Sanford joining the fractious Republican majority, replacing the lone black Republican in the House while the national GOP struggles to regain its footing with women and minorities.
“The only thing that Democrats could get from losing is a sense of schadenfreude,” said Amy Walter, national political analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “They know that he is going to be a big thorn in the side of the Republican leadership.”
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The chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Steve Israel, seized on that sentiment after Sanford’s victory.
“House Republicans’ outreach to women voters now has Mark Sanford as the face,” Israel said. “Republicans now have to defend him and stand with him until Election Day.”
Israel’s Republican counterpart, Rep. Greg Walden, congratulated Sanford, adding: “These results demonstrate just how devastating the policies of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi are for House Democrats in 2014.”
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Special elections have not been reliable predictors for party performance in future elections. Democrats actually won each of the most competitive open races in 2009, only to see historic losses in the 2010 midterms. A 2011 victory by Democrat Kathy Hochul in a Republican-leaning seat in Upstate New York was heralded by her party as a rebuke of the new Republican majority and its plan to overhaul Medicare. Hochul narrowly lost last November, but Democrats did slightly reduce the GOP majority as Obama won a second term.
For Democrats, the effort to snatch the Republican-leaning seat is one they will have to repeat elsewhere in 2014 if they hope to regain control of the House. Democrats hold 201 seats — 17 seats shy of a majority. But the number of targets is limited, in part because of 2010 redistricting that favored Republicans in most states.
“These are the kinds of risks Democrats have to take if they’re going to win control of Congress,” Walter said. “2014 is going to be all about Democrats having to really scrape and claw their way to the number of seats that they need to win control. There’s no more low-hanging fruit.”
Republicans will hold 233 of the House’s 435 seats when Sanford is sworn in, probably this week. The actual timing is in doubt, however — he is due in court Thursday on the trespassing charge.
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