Republican Mark Sanford will return to the U.S. House after winning a special election last night in South Carolina, staging a comeback four years after scandal tarnished his image while he served as the state’s governor.
Sanford’s defeat of Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, an older sister of comedian Stephen Colbert, capped a bid for personal and political redemption by a candidate who was once a rising star in his party.
“I am one imperfect man, saved by God’s grace,” Sanford told supporters as he celebrated his victory in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. He said his campaign was based on “reconstructing those market-based principles, those constitutional ideals and those themes of limited government.”
Sanford, 52, was aided by the political tilt of a Charleston-based district that backed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney over President Barack Obama, 58 percent to 40 percent, in the 2012 election, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. South Carolina’s 1st District is the best-educated and wealthiest of the seven in the state, with a median household income of $56,079 compared with $42,367 statewide, according to 2011 Census Bureau estimates.
Sanford was familiar to most voters, having represented much of the current district from 1995 until 2001, when he retired from Congress to honor a term-limits pledge. He was elected governor in 2002 and re-elected in 2006.
In 2009, Sanford admitted to an extramarital affair with an Argentine woman he visited out of state after first telling aides he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. Sanford was censured by the Republican-led state legislature and paid ethics fines, though he resisted calls from members of his own party and others to resign. He finished his term in early 2011.
The affair ended Sanford’s marriage, and he’s now engaged to the Argentine woman, Maria Belen Chapur.
In his campaign to revive his political career, Sanford acknowledged mistakes in his private life as he asked voters to give him a second chance and to consider his 14 years in public office. He spotlighted his favorable ratings from groups promoting spending restraint and tax cuts, and touted his opposition to appropriations projects in Congress and to federal stimulus funds as governor.
He also tied Colbert Busch, a first-time candidate, to national Democratic figures such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California. Pelosi had a voter-approval rating of 24 percent and a disapproval rating of 61 percent in the district, according to a May 4-5 survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning group based in Raleigh, North Carolina.
“Sanford has gotten back into the race by nationalizing it and painting Colbert Busch as a liberal,” the survey company said in a May 5 analysis of its poll that showed Sanford up by 1 percentage point, compared with a 9-point deficit two weeks earlier.
With 100 percent of the vote counted, Sanford won 54 percent to 45 percent for Colbert Busch, according to the Associated Press tally. Sanford led Colbert Busch in all five of the district’s counties.
Republicans interpreted Sanford’s win as a warning sign for President Barack Obama and Democratic prospects in next year’s midterm election, in which the party as of now will need a net gain of 17 seats to claim a House majority.
“These results demonstrate just how devastating the policies of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi are for House Democrats in 2014,” Representative Greg Walden of Oregon, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement last night.
Sanford won with little help from the committee, the political arm of House Republicans. The organization kept its distance from his campaign after AP said last month that Sanford’s ex-wife, Jenny, filed a complaint accusing him of trespassing at her home in February. Sanford said he wanted to watch the end of the Super Bowl with one of their four sons and unsuccessfully tried to reach his ex-wife, who has custody.
Democrats reacted to Sanford’s win by touting the newcomer’s performance in what Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel termed in a statement a “deep red Republican district,” referring to the color used by television networks for Republican areas of the U.S.
“The fact that the Democrat made this competitive is a testament to the strength of Elizabeth Colbert Busch as a candidate and the Republican habit of nominating flawed candidates,” said Israel, a House member from New York.
“Democrats will be aggressive and drive deep into Republican-held territory this cycle to find districts with flawed Republican candidates where we can compete,” he said.
Colbert Busch courted women by emphasizing that she had raised her children as a single mother and by describing herself as a “tough, independent businesswoman.” She works as a business-development official with an arm of Clemson University.
While she received campaign donations from House Democrats and assistance from outside groups that aired advertisements attacking Sanford, Colbert Busch played down her party affiliation and raised questions about parts of Obama’s budget proposals and his 2010 health-care law.
Colbert Busch outraised Sanford, collecting about $1.2 million to his $788,000 through April 17, Federal Election Commission data show. Her brother, a satirist who hosts Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” helped in the money raising. The DCCC and House Majority PAC, a super-political action committee, aired television ads attacking Sanford’s ethics.
Sanford will succeed Republican Tim Scott, who resigned from the seat in January to become a U.S. senator. The House will have 233 Republicans and 201 Democrats once Sanford is sworn in. There’s one vacancy, in a Republican-leaning district in Missouri.
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