The redemption tour is over and Congress has a new Comeback Kid.
Scandal-laden former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford won back his old congressional seat on Tuesday night, defeating Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch by a 54 percent to 45 percent margin in a high-turnout special election.
The victory shocked the national press corps, who had been predicting a Colbert-Busch victory—with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, for example, declaring “this is not serious” after a PPP poll found Sanford 9 points behind the Democratic nominee two weeks from Election Day.
But to be fair, even the Republican National Congressional Committee decided that Sanford was a lost cause, unceremoniously withdrawing its cash after court documents were leaked showing that Sanford had violated the terms of his divorce agreement by trespassing onto his ex-wife’s property to watch the Super Bowl with their sons. There were late-inning dirty tricks on the Republican side of the aisle as well, such as the release of late 1980s mug shots of Colbert-Busch.
The national impulse to view the race as a contest between Jenny Sanford and Stephen Colbert—Elizabeth’s beloved comedian brother—was so tempting that it distracted from the facts on the ground. Sanford’s much-mocked tactic of debating a cardboard cutout of Nancy Pelosi proved an effective tool to nationalize the race for local voters, casting the contest as a decision about whether liberal Democrats should have another vote in Congress. That move, combined with the 18 percent advantage Republicans have in the coastal First District—thanks to the rigged system of redistricting—helped Sanford win.
Elizabeth Colbert Busch ran a confident campaign, relentlessly running as an “independent businesswoman” who would vote her district and be a centrist voice devoted to calming hyperpartisan discord in Congress. She was rewarded with the most competitive congressional general election the First District has had since 1980. But her initial success in polls might have created an overconfidence that put her campaign on the defense, trying not to lose rather than trying to win. She agreed to only one debate and in the final day of the election kept a minimal campaign schedule while Sanford stuck to a tireless calendar, with 10 scheduled stops.
“The Colbert Busch team ran like their party won 58-40 last November,” said Shawn Drury, political editor of South Carolina Patch.com, which provided the most detailed coverage of the campaign and hosted the sole debate (which I participated in). “And they were stunned by the degree to which Republicans turned out for the special election.”
From the start of this unlikely campaign, Sanford has been easy to underestimate. His well-chronicled scandal, which brought “hiking the Appalachian Trail” into the lexicon, obscured his ability to connect with low-country voters. There’s a reason Sanford has never lost an election, and during the crowded GOP primaries I was struck by the way local voters called him “Mark” rather than “Governor”—and his evident mastery of policy details helped him stand out from the pack. For all the easy accusations of hypocrisy, Sanford had never been a social conservative Bible-thumper as much as strident fiscal conservative who was railing against the deficit and debt while arguing for entitlement reform back in the 1990s.
All this translated to Sanford outperforming polls throughout this campaign by considerable margins. Some voters were reluctant to tell pollsters they would pull the lever for as scandal-scarred a candidate as Sanford, but in the end they did.
Sanford has been granted the rarest thing in political life—a second chance. He will have to earn this opportunity by following through on his promise to be more humble and empathetic in office. He will enter Congress with seniority and a chance to steer debates in a constructive rather than inflammatory way. No doubt some politicians—I’m looking at you, Anthony Weiner—will take too much comfort from Sanford’s victory and be tempted to pursue their own premature redemption campaign. The takeaway isn’t that scandals don’t matter, but that voters can put them in perspective. Perhaps the most transferable lesson is a reinforcement of the old adage “all politics is local” and the idea that in politics, as in sports, the best defense is a good offense.
For Sanford, the personal and political drama is not over. On Thursday, the congressman-elect is scheduled to appear in court to answer trespassing charges against his ex-wife. Then he will head back to the House of Representatives, where his career began almost 20 years ago—older and, presumably, wiser.