Pop some popcorn and take a front-row seat. The South Carolina electoral scene, endlessly mesmerizing in a train-wreck sort of way, could feature a Sanford vs. Sanford contest. Though it’s unlikely, that imaginary race tops the holiday wish list for anyone who likes politics with a heavy dose of soap opera.
Former governor Mark Sanford is seriously considering a run for the U.S. House seat now held by Tim Scott, a former top aide first told CNN late Thursday. On Monday, Scott was chosen by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to fill the Senate seat of Jim DeMint, who is departing to run the conservative Heritage Foundation. Mark Sanford’s ex-wife, Jenny Sanford, was on the short list to take DeMint’s place. Many observers, though, thought being nominated was honor enough for Haley’s long-time ally, especially helpful if she expressed interest in running to replace Scott. He is set to be sworn into the Senate in early January.
All the players in this particular game of political musical chairs are Republicans, this being South Carolina, a virtual one-party red state. Though all share conservative positions, each lugs very distinctive baggage.
To some, the move makes sense for Mark Sanford, who lives in Beaufort County and held the 1st district House seat before he was elected governor in 2002 and became a budget-cutting, rising GOP star. “(I) haven’t seen (his) numbers but sure (he can win),” a GOP operative once close to Sanford told the State newspaper. “It’s a 12-week process. It’s who starts with name ID and who can raise enough money to buy name ID. He surely has No. 1 (name ID). (And he) starts with $100,000 in the bank. I just have no idea what his negatives are.”
One of those negatives came courtesy of a reporter from The State who confronted the married father of four at the Atlanta airport in 2009 as he returned from a visit to his mistress in Argentina – on Father’s Day weekend. He had told his staff he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. The scandal dragged out, with tearful public confessions of his transgressions with his “soulmate.” Though Sanford eventually paid a state ethics fine, he was not impeached, a nifty future campaign slogan.
Jenny Sanford, who did not stand by her man, also did not shy away from the spotlight, making appearances on every possible day and nighttime talk show to publicize her account, told in the book “Staying True.” She divorced her husband and kept the house in Sullivan’s Island on the coast and in the first district. But many believe that though she hasn’t officially ruled out a run, Mark Sanford’s probable candidacy means she has decided not to compete against him. “He needed to make this good with Jenny,” a GOP operative told the State while ticking off Sanford’s pre-candidacy to-do list Friday. So privately, the word is that no way, no how is she going to run.
In what promises to be a crowded primary, no candidate may win the required majority, forcing a runoff two weeks later before a May special election. In that case, name recognition for the former governor could help, though familiarity breeds disapproval. (In recent polls, his favorable numbers stalled at 30, though his old district may give him the benefit of the doubt).
Even without Jenny Sanford on the ballot, the campaign could get interesting. One can imagine surreal stops on the campaign trail. Would Mark Sanford appear with Maria Belen Chapur, the woman on the other end of his Argentina jaunts who is now his fiancée? That would be awkward. And would he just concede the female vote at the start? Attack ads could get brutal, though with the dirty laundry that’s already been aired, few secrets remain.
Of course, it will be up to South Carolina voters, who could decide to retire anybody named Sanford and choose someone – anyone – else.
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