A little more than three years ago, Mark Sanford – the photogenic South Carolina conservative governor with the picture perfect family – was the future of the Republican Party, mentioned as a presidential contender.
In the summer of 2009, a detour to Argentina that revealed an extramarital affair made the wrong kind of headlines. And though Sanford is now respectably engaged to his then-girlfriend and told The Wall Street Journal he hasn’t said no to a political comeback, the focus is on another Sanford. Ex-wife Jenny Sanford is reportedly on South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s short list to fill out the U.S. Senate term of Jim DeMint, who is departing to head the conservative Heritage Foundation. It’s a reminder that Jenny Sanford has been and continues to be a political player.
The former Wall Street investment banker was a force in her former husband’s congressional and gubernatorial races. As veteran South Carolina political journalist Lee Bandy once told me, as her husband’s campaign manager, “there was no doubt who was in charge.” Jenny Sanford was savvy enough to endorse Haley’s candidacy early on, and the governor is known to be loyal. (In a Wednesday appearance in Columbia, S.C., Haley said of Sanford, “She’s a confidante that I’ve always looked to to just tell me what I’m doing wrong and tell me what I’m doing right,” according to the Associated Press.)
Jenny Sanford turned the narrative of wronged wife upside down. She distanced herself from the one-time, two-timing governor – no “standing by her man” tableau for the mother of four sons. “If he had asked me, I would have said no,” she said at the time. By 2010, less than a year after the summer of love, Jenny Sanford filed for divorce, had a book, “Staying True,” on bestseller lists and a string of TV chats with, among others, Jon Stewart, Larry King and Barbara Walters. Her popularity in South Carolina is, not surprisingly, ahead of Mark Sanford’s.
U.S. Rep. Tim Scott still has to be the favorite to be appointed to fill DeMint’s seat. The conservative GOP congressman from the Charleston area – a tea party favorite – would be the first African-American U.S. senator from the South since Reconstruction, a potent legislator and symbol.
A woman as senator from South Carolina – appointed by an Indian-American woman — would make its own kind of history. (The Republican brand is hurting with both women and minorities.) But if Scott moves to the Senate, that would still leave his first congressional district in need of representation, perhaps from someone, such as Sullivan’s Island resident Jenny Sanford, who also lives on the S.C. coast.
Senator or not, she looks to have settled into the spotlight for a while.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3