WASHINGTON – 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 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 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 1st 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.