Mark Sanford wins the South Carolina special election and may have just pulled off one of the more remarkable political comebacks in recent memory – certainly the most bizarre. At 54-45, my prediction of a Sanford 51-48 victory was a little tame, but at least my ego remains largely intact! Turn-out, as I said all along, was key. Turn-outs in special elections are notoriously small, but this one blew away the turn-out from the primary in March. The more Republicans who came out actually made Sanford’s win a little anti-climactic.
I’m sure Elizabeth Colbert Busch is kicking herself for not campaigning more aggressively against Sanford. During their debate, I was tempted to compare her strategy to football’s prevent defense and most fans are familiar with the cliche, it prevents you from winning! Trite conventional wisdom strikes again!
On the one hand, as impressive as Sanford’s turnaround is, we should also not read too much into its meaning. Minus the personal scandals, Sanford, a former congressman and former governor would have won in a landslide. Not only that, but this was his old congressional seat in a district that has voted Republican for 30 years. This seat was the Republicans’ to lose and they didn’t lose it. On the other hand, it looked like Sanford totally blew it once the trespassing allegations surfaced and he was down nine in the polls. That becomes the added element of this comeback: it’s really two comebacks.
One of the lessons Republicans can learn from this is that it is possible to return from a personal scandal. However, it needs to be the right circumstances and the right candidate. Sanford really was on his home turf and he ended up sweeping all the counties. He made his campaign about forgiveness, second chances, and whether or not to send a Nancy Pelosi clone to Congress. As fair or unfair as that characterization was, Sanford stayed on message, knew his audience, and definitely outworked an opponent who neither mistepped nor did anything to finish him off.
Liberals gnashing their teeth on Twitter right now may think they can tie Sanford to the larger GOP in an attempt to drag down the whole party as a party of moral reprobates. But unlike Pelosi, Sanford is not in the party leadership nor is he about to be.
When he was in the House before, Sanford was an ally of Ron Paul’s. Paul is gone, but in his place are Reps. Justin Amash and Thomas Massie and old guard Paul companion Jimmy Duncan of Tennessee is still there. Among some others, it was the Paul faction of the GOP that came out to defend Sanford when the NRCC abandoned him. Sanford will be more visible now than he was from 1994-2000, but the face of the party is still Bush, McCain, Romney, and McConnell, not Mark Sanford.
So there is life after a sex scandal for Republicans (and certain Democrats?). When caught in his imbroglio four years ago, I assumed Sanford’s career was over. The presidency, for which Sanford was a rumored candidate at the time, is still a bridge too far. For now, he’s headed to Washington (and court), and possibly to gloat at the rivals who danced on his grave.