Mark Sanford is the former South Carolina governor who became famous for his claims of a sojourn on the Appalachian Trail that led to the admission of an extramarital affair four years ago. Now he’s asking for voters’ forgiveness and a political comeback.
He may get it. Yet the personal financial interests of the district’s constituents may play bigger roles in determining the outcome of tonight’s 1st District Republican primary runoff -- and the course of Sanford’s future.
The House district isn’t a bastion of evangelical Christian voters motivated by such issues as abortion and marital fidelity as are some upstate South Carolina communities, including Greenville and Spartanburg. The 1st District is the state’s wealthiest, with a median household income of $56,079 compared to $42,367 statewide, according to 2011 Census Bureau estimates. Retirees from outside the state have moved into the district along South Carolina’s coast between Charleston and Hilton Head.
“This is not Greenville and Spartanburg,” said Warren Tompkins, a veteran South Carolina-based Republican consultant who isn’t involved in the race. “Fiscal policy is first, social issues second.”
The district includes 941 companies, 23 percent more than the state average. Its biggest employers include OAK White Amnor-Charleston, which provides health services to the elderly and disabled, and Hagemeyer North America Inc., a manufacturer of electrical equipment. Both companies had revenue of $1.2 billion in 2011, according to Bloomberg Government.
“The issue that drives most voters seems to be economic conservatism, almost to the point of being libertarian in its leanings,” said Scott Buchanan, a political scientist at The Citadel in Charleston. “There’s much more of a focus on the economics, not so much on the social issues, which is one reason Sanford is in better shape, at least in the Republican contest.”
The district’s demographics and familiarity with Sanford, who represented the area in the House from 1995 to 2001, are advantages as he vies for the nomination with Curtis Bostic, a personal-injury lawyer and former county councilman.
Sanford was the top vote-getter in the March 19 primary with 37 percent of the vote, while Bostic’s 13 percent was best among 15 other candidates. A runoff election is needed because no candidate won a majority of primary votes.
The winner will face Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, a business development official and first-time candidate who’s an older sister of political satirist Stephen Colbert. The special election is May 7.
Colbert Busch is campaigning in the predominantly Republican district on a platform of creating jobs and reducing the federal budget deficit, said James Smith, a spokesman.
“That message will resonate with the voters no matter who the opponent is,” Smith said. Voters are “just tired of the extremism and the career politicians,” he said.
Sanford, first elected governor in 2002 and re-elected in 2006, has been reminding voters of his record cutting government spending and his battles with the Obama administration over his rejection of federal stimulus funds when he was governor.
He’s also attempting to quell lingering resentment of his acknowledgment in 2009 that he was having an affair with an Argentinian woman he visited outside the country after telling his staff he was hiking in the Appalachian mountains.
After the relationship was uncovered, Sanford was censured by the Republican state legislature and paid $74,000 in ethics fines, though he rejected calls to resign and served out his second term. The affair ended his marriage.
In one TV ad, Sanford says he’s “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.”
His attempted return to politics is the latest test of a politician’s staying power after a personal scandal.
Senator David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican who acknowledged a “very serious sin” after he was identified in 2007 as a client of an escort service, was re-elected in 2010. New York Democratic Representative Anthony Weiner, Nevada Republican Senator John Ensign, and New York Republican Representative Chris Lee all resigned in 2011 after sex-related scandals. Among them, Weiner is considering a comeback.
At a candidate debate on March 28, Sanford recalled a pastor saying the previous Sunday that personal experiences can either “define or refine” one’s life.
“The events of 2009 absolutely represent a failure on my part for which there were, and will always be at some level, consequences,” Sanford said. “But that does not mean, because you’ve had a failure in your personal life, that you cannot step back into life again.”
Some Republicans in the district said Sanford’s views on financial policy are more important than his personal failings.
Sanford’s “liberty-minded voting record” has “struck a chord with people” who are “more concerned about their future than about his personal failings of the past,” said Lee Bright, a Republican state senator from Spartanburg.
Sanford’s donors include billionaire energy executive David Koch, Wyoming investor Foster Friess and Fred Malek, the founder and chairman of Thayer Lodging Group Inc.
In the primary contest, Sanford led Bostic by 53 percent to 40 percent in a survey conducted March 22-24 by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning company. Colbert Busch, who beat a single opponent in the Democratic primary on March 19, led Sanford by 47 percent to 45 percent and was tied with Bostic at 43 percent in prospective match-ups in the special election, the survey showed.
Bostic says the survey underscores that Sanford is a “compromised candidate” who would jeopardize Republican control of a district that that party’s presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, carried with 58 percent of the vote to President Barack Obama 40 percent in last November’s election, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Should Sanford become the Republican nominee, “we will lose this seat, and lose it needlessly, because of this issue of trust,” Bostic said at last week’s debate.
Republicans hold 232 House seats compared to 200 for Democrats. The South Carolina seat is one of three vacancies.
Bostic regularly mentions his background as a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served on the Charleston County council with now-Senator Tim Scott, the former 1st District Representative whose resignation in January triggered the special election.
Bostic is courting support from evangelical voters offended by Sanford’s affair and competing for the votes of Tea Party activists who want to slash government spending.
He has touted endorsements from more than 40 local clergy and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who sought backing from evangelical Christians when he ran for president in 2012. Santorum campaigned for Bostic in South Carolina on March 27 and his political action committee donated to Bostic’s campaign.
In one of Bostic’s commercials, his wife, Jenny, speaks to the camera about having the couple’s fifth child in 2002 after doctors warned that a pregnancy could cause a recurrence of her cancer.
“Curtis and I trusted God, and chose life,” she says.
While evangelical Christianity is “less of an issue here” than in other South Carolina districts, Bostic’s strategy is “maximizing the Christian Republican voters who are concerned about Sanford’s personal life,” Buchanan said.
“The key question is, can he do that again and do that in enough numbers to get past Sanford?” he said.