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Mark Sanford's Sex Scandal Survival Guide

The former governor violated all the rules of political comebacks, but he won a solidly Republican seat anyway.


Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford gives his victory speech after wining back his old congressional seat in the state's 1st District on Tuesday, May 7, 2013, in Mt. Pleasant, S.C.(AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)

Memo to Anthony Weiner: Stand down.

Sure, Republican Mark Sanford’s election to Congress on Tuesday despite an ignominious affair suggests a certain tolerance among voters for sex scandal, possibly raising the hopes of the potential New York City mayoral candidate who resigned from Congress after dispatching a lewd photo online.


But before Weiner and other disgraced politicians start seeking electoral redemption, they should consider that in South Carolina’s heavily conservative First Congressional District, just about anyone -- including an ethically challenged adulterer who misled the state about his whereabouts while governor -- is preferable to a union-backing Nancy Pelosi clone.

That was the caricature Sanford successfully drew of his opponent, Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, a first-time candidate best known, if at all, for being the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert. He tied Colbert Busch to the House Minority Leader at every turn and even held a mock debate against a Pelosi cardboard cutout. “Nancy Pelosi and her allies have spent more than $1 million to defeat me,” Sanford said directly to the camera in his closing ad of the campaign.

In a district of southerners who favored 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney by 18 percentage points, a vote for Colbert Busch was a vote for an elitist San Francisco liberal -- and that was not a vote they could stomach.


“I don’t think Sanford winning means voters forgot about what he did. I think it means they care about politics more than personal indiscretions,” said Katon Dawson, former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party.

The district’s conservative leanings are even more pronounced in special elections, which draw light turnouts of only the most ideological voters. Over 15 years in Congress and the governor’s mansion, Sanford built a record of fiscal frugality – a theme he keep alive with sloppy, spray-painted, ply board campaign signs throughout the district.

“The one thing you can say about Mark is that despite his person foibles, he’s been consistent in his frugality and ideology in terms of advocating less spending,” said South Carolina-based Republican strategist Chip Felkel. “Then he whacked his opponent over the head with a two-by-four by the name of Nancy Pelosi. That nationalized the race and allowed him to stop revisiting his own personal problems.”

Alison Dagnes, a political science professor at Shippensburg University and the author of Sex Scandals in American Politics, argued that Sanford took none of the precautions or steps that usually precede a political comeback. He jumped back into politics after only two years out of office. His wife didn’t stand by him – in fact, they’re divorced and she’s accused him of trespassing. By taking out a full-page newspaper ad during the campaign to defend his behavior, Sanford encouraged voters to dwell on his mistakes.


Sanford’s personal failings also carried public overtones because he disappeared from his post as governor for several days in 2009 when he was visiting his girlfriend in Argentina.

“Everything in my research suggests he should have gone down in flames,” Dagnes said. “In this case, the district was so devoutly Republican that they could overlook his personal weaknesses.”

For those looking for lessons from Sanford’s success, Dagnes predicted that it’s too soon for Weiner to run for office again and that former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer is better positioned for a return to politics. Since he resigned in 2008 after being caught up in a prostitution ring, Spitzer has published a dry policy book titled “Government’s Place in the Market,” hosted television shows on CNN and Current TV and written columns for Slate. “You have to allow for enough time for a Google search to find other things about you besides the sex scandal,” Dagnes said.

Another potential role model for scandal-plagued politicians is Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, also linked to a Washington brothel. Unlike Sanford, his wife was standing next to him when he apologized publicly, and she said she had forgiven him.

The ads against Sanford didn’t pull any punches. In one spot sponsored by a Democratic group called House Majority PAC, a retired army colonel declared, “Mark Sanford abandoned his post…It really hurt me and betrayed all of South Carolina and its citizens.” Another ad featured a middle-aged woman who said, “I’m a Republican, but Mark Sanford just doesn’t share our values.”

The hard-hitting ads, along with Colbert Busch’s fundraising advantage, ensured that voters couldn’t easily overlook Sanford’s past. Still, the attacks were no match for the district’s partisan makeup. According to the Cook Political Report, the district has a Partisan Voter Index score of R+11, meaning that in the most recent two presidential elections, the district voted 11 points more Republican than the country as a whole. It’s the 118th most Republican district in the country.

In one obvious upside for Democrats, Sanford’s win means the party can continue using him as a punching bag as it seeks to exploit the gender gap and portray the GOP as hostile to women. Democratic operatives have tried to link Sanford to failed Republican candidates like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, who made controversial remarks about rape and abortion. “Now, Sanford will be another albatross around the neck of every Republican,” Stone said, adding that Sanford opposed the Violence Against Women Act when he previously served in Congress.

Though Sanford was ignored by the national Republican Party and the state’s congressional delegation, some last-minute gestures of support from prominent Republicans gave voters permission to support Sanford despite his transgressions. In the homestretch of the race, Sanford got a fundraising boost from South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and endorsements from South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.  “We are in the south, where people believe in redemption, and Sanford has been very humbled,” Felkel said.

Colbert Busch’s cautious campaign accepted only one of four debate invitations and frequently shielded her from reporters, which in retrospect might have been a mistake. At the one and only matchup against Sanford, Colbert Busch was aggressive and slayed Sanford with this reference to his secret trip to Argentina: “"When we talk about fiscal spending, and we talk about protecting the taxpayers, it doesn't mean that you take that money that we saved and leave the country for a personal purpose.”

However, the debate was not aired by local television stations and had a limited impact in a district in which the Democrats would pass for Republicans in less conservative states.

“I don’t like what (Sanford) did but that doesn’t have anything to do with how he governs,” said Julie Bishop, who lives in a Charleston retirement community where Sanford recently campaigned. “If he murdered somebody, that would be different.”

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