Former South Carolina governor and current congressional candidate Mark… (Jay Karr/AP )
In the annals of political redemption stories, it is hard to top the one that former governor Mark Sanford is attempting to write in South Carolina.
After a spectacular 2009 scandal that destroyed his marriage, spawned impeachment proceedings and saddled the Republican with the biggest ethics fine in state history, Sanford is making a new start right back where he started his once-promising political career two decades ago — running for Congress in South Carolina’s 1st District.
The most amazing part: He’s got a good chance of winning.
“For all the obvious reasons, I thought politics was forever over for me,” Sanford said in an interview.
But in December, Republican Jim DeMint shocked the state by leaving the Senate for a job running the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Then, Rep. Tim Scott (R) was named to fill DeMint’s seat, leaving an opening in Sanford’s old House district.
“It’s sort of a generational event. It never happens in South Carolina politics. A U.S. senator retires, and then a governor appoints, and then my phone lines light up,” Sanford said.
At the moment, Sanford is still one of 16 who are seeking the Republican nomination in a special election to fill the seat.
That means the man once touted as a GOP presidential prospect is spending his evenings in places like the Golden Corral family buffet here, where 13 of the contenders were making their cases at a Beaufort County Republican Party candidates’ forum Thursday night.
With each of them allotted only five minutes, Sanford, the first to speak, had an advantage that few of his rivals had, which is that people in the audience actually knew who he was.
Among his opponents was a high school economics teacher from Mount Pleasant, S.C., named Teddy Turner. He devoted his presentation to convincing the conservative audience that he has nothing in common with his father, CNN founder Ted Turner, or his former stepmother Jane Fonda, whom the younger Turner referred to as “Hanoi Jane.”
“How many of you get to pick your parents?” Turner lamented.
A few candidates later into the program, Tim Larkin, an engineer, looked around the room and declared: “I think the only folks I know here are my competitors.”
Even his opponents concede the former governor is all but certain to come in first in the March 19 primary, after which he will face the second-place finisher in a runoff two weeks later.
In a district that went nearly 60 percent for Mitt Romney in the last presidential contest, the winner of the GOP primary will have a big advantage in the May 7 special election. But that race, too, has a splash of excitement, given that the Democratic nominee is expected to be Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of Comedy Central star Stephen Colbert.
As he acknowledged, Sanford is the beneficiary of a unique set of circumstances — a short race, a big field, a hefty campaign treasury (including more than $120,000 in leftover money from his congressional races and, with some restrictions, more than $1 million donated to his gubernatorial campaigns) and the fact that pretty much everyone in the district has seen his name on the ballot five times before.
The combative mood of the Republican electorate also works to the advantage of the former governor, who boasts at every stop that he was the first in the nation to turn down the money from President Obama’s stimulus package in 2009.
“They just don’t hold to the same standards that they used to,” said Warren Tompkins, a veteran South Carolina GOP strategist.
There was a time when South Carolinians would have considered Sanford’s ethics and personal travails a disqualifier, Tompkins said. “We find people are overlooking that, and they’re voting on pure ideological grounds. In today’s Republican primary, he is dead-on on the issue that matters the most to everybody, which is spending, and the size and scope of government.”
The scandal that everyone assumed had ended his career rarely comes up at Sanford’s campaign appearances.
But it remains to be seen whether that means voters have forgiven the governor for his mysterious disappearance for five days in June 2009. His cover story — that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail — became a late-night punch line when it was discovered that the trip had actually been an assignation in Argentina with his lover, Maria Belen Chapur, whom the married father of four then tearfully declared “my soulmate.”
The state Ethics Commission later charged the governor who portrayed himself as ”a stalwart defender of the taxpayer” with 37 violations involving his travels and use of state and campaign funds. Sanford admitted no guilt but agreed to pay $74,000 in fines.
Sanford gave up his post as head of the Republican Governors Association. His wife and former campaign manager, Jenny Sanford, left him and wrote a best-selling book.