BLUFFTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – In the annals of political redemption stories, it is hard to top the one that Republican Former Gov. Mark Sanford is attempting to write in South Carolina, the state he once headed.
After a spectacular 2009 scandal that destroyed his marriage, spawned impeachment proceedings and saddled him with the biggest ethics fine in state history, Sanford is making a new start right back where he started his once-promising political career two decades ago — running for Congress in South Carolina’s first district.
The most amazing part: He’s got a good chance of winning.
“For all the obvious reasons, I thought politics was forever over for me,” Sanford said in an interview.
But in December, Jim DeMint shocked the state by leaving the Senate for a job running the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Then, Rep. Tim Scott, a Republican, was named to fill DeMint’s seat, leaving an opening in Sanford’s old House district.
“It’s sort of a generational event. It never happens in South Carolina politics. A U.S. senator retires and then a governor appoints, and then my phone lines light up,” Sanford said.
At the moment, Sanford is still one of 16 who are seeking the GOP nomination in a special election to fill the seat.
That means the man once touted as a GOP presidential prospect is spending his evenings in places like the Golden Corral family buffet in Bluffton, where 13 of the contenders were making their cases at a Beaufort County Republican Party candidate forum Thursday night.
With each of them allotted only five minutes, Sanford, the first to speak, had an advantage that few of his rivals had, which is that people in the audience actually knew who he was.
Among his opponents was a high school economics teacher from Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, named Teddy Turner. He devoted his presentation to convincing the conservative audience that he had nothing in common with his father, CNN founder Ted Turner, or his former stepmother Jane Fonda, whom the younger Turner referred to as “Hanoi Jane.”
“How many of you get to pick your parents?” Turner lamented.
A few candidates later into the program, Tim Larkin, an engineer, looked around the room and declared: “I think the only folks I know here are my competitors.”
Even his opponents concede the former governor is all but certain to come in first in the March 19 primary, after which he will face the second-place finisher in a runoff two weeks later.
In a district that went nearly 60 percent for Mitt Romney in the last presidential contest, the winner of the GOP primary will have a big advantage in the May 7 special election. But that race, too, has a splash of excitement, given that the Democratic nominee is expected to be Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of Comedy Central star Stephen Colbert.
As he acknowledged, Sanford is the beneficiary of a unique set of circumstances — a short race, a big field, a hefty campaign treasury (including more than $120,000 in leftover funds from his congressional races, and, with some restrictions, more than $1 million donated to his gubernatorial campaigns) and the fact that pretty much everyone in the district has seen his name on the ballot five times before.
But the combative mood of the Republican electorate also works to the advantage of the former governor, who boasts at every stop that he was the first in the nation to turn down the money from President Barack Obama’s stimulus package in 2009.
“They just don’t hold to the same standards that they used to,” said South Carolina GOP strategist Warren Tompkins.
There was a time when South Carolinians would have considered Sanford’s ethics and personal travails a disqualifier, Tompkins said. “We find people are overlooking that, and they’re voting on pure ideological grounds. In today’s Republican primary, he is dead-on on the issue that matters the most to everybody, which is spending, and the size and scope of government.”
The scandal that everyone assumed had ended his career rarely comes up at Sanford’s campaign appearances.
But it remains to be seen whether that means voters have forgiven the governor for his mysterious disappearance for five days in June 2009. His cover story — that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail — became a late-night punchline when it was discovered that the trip had actually been an assignation in Argentina with his lover, Maria Belen Chapur, whom the married father of four then tearfully declared “my soul mate.”
The state Ethics Commission later charged the governor who portrayed himself as “a stalwart defender of the taxpayer” with 37 violations involving his travels and use of state and campaign funds. Sanford admitted no guilt, but agreed to pay $74,000 in fines.
Sanford gave up his post as head of the Republican Governors Association. His wife and former campaign manager, Jenny Sanford, left him and wrote a best-selling book.
Yet despite loud calls for his resignation, Sanford finished out the final year of his term, which, paradoxically, turned out to be his most productive. Instead of clashing with the GOP legislature — Sanford famously carried two squealing piglets up the State House steps during one budget fight — he found ways to work with them, and they with him.
“It’s not that you change your convictions. I was a conservative. I am a conservative,” Sanford said. “I think that there is a certain inner hubris that can come with success. My life had always been fairly linear. It had been one step up, one step up, one step up.”
Sanford spent a year after leaving office on his family farm. He built a cabin from timber he had cut himself. And last summer, he and Chapur got engaged.
“It’s strange to say, but he is more at peace now than I’ve ever seen him,” said state Sen. Tom Davis, a friend since college who had served as Sanford’s chief of staff.
Before he ran, Sanford said, he consulted his four sons and his ex-wife. Indeed, there had been talk of Jenny Sanford herself making a bid for the seat, but she declined to run.
In his first campaign ad, unveiled last week, Sanford says to the camera: “I’ve 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.”
That rankles some.
“Mark Sanford is basically saying in that ad, ‘If you don’t vote for me, you haven’t forgiven me,’ ” said Hogan Gidley, a former state GOP executive director who is now advising one of Sanford’s rivals. “As a Christian, that’s offensive. As a South Carolinian, that’s ridiculous.”
Voters like Ida Jane Gallagher, a retired teacher who lives in Mount Pleasant and came to hear Sanford at an event in Charleston, say they are still trying to figure it all out.
“He’s very well informed and he has great experience,” she said. “I really regret what happened, but I think we have to move past it if he is the candidate that will best represent us.”
But Gallagher added: “A lot of my friends who know Jenny Sanford won’t vote for him.”