Why Mark Sanford’s comeback bid just might work

January 16, 2013

Former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford has made it official. He’s trying to make an unlikely political comeback after a dramatic fall from public grace four years ago.

And for a number of reasons, it just might work.


Former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford (R). (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Sanford, a onetime rising star in the Republican Party who some party strategists viewed as a potential White House contender, fell dramatically in summer 2009  when his whereabouts became a mystery and he abruptly admitted to an extramarital relationship. On Wednesday, he officially announced his candidacy for his old congressional seat.

After admitting to the affair, Sanford served out the rest of his term as governor, but his long-term prospects appeared to be dashed. After leaving office in 2011, Sanford kept a low profile. He recently reemerged when his old congressional seat came open, as Gov. Nikki Haley (R) appointed its representative, Republican Tim Scott, to replace Republican Jim DeMint in the Senate.

While it might seem unlikely that a figure whose once-soaring stock came crashing down might stand a chance to return to public office, there are a few factors working squarely in Sanford’s favor:

* Name recognition: Sanford represented the 1st district from 1995 until 2001, and served two terms as governor, so voters know who he is. The 1st district’s lines changed during the decennial redistricting process, but the Charleston media market – where Sanford is very well-known – still covers a majority of the district.

* Fiscal issues: Sanford made his mark as a staunch fiscal conservative, and given the issues that are likely to dominate the discussion in Congress (the debt ceiling, spending, the sequester, deficit reduction) in the coming months, fiscal conservatives are likely to look favorably upon Sanford’s chops. Opponents may charge that Sanford's personal indiscretions make him an unreliable figure, but on fiscal issues, it will be hard to argue against Sanford's reliably conservative resume.

* Money: Sanford has about $125,000 left over from his congressional campaign account, and the relationships he cultivated during his time as governor will allow him to raise more. The campaign will be a sprint, so there will not be a lot of time for candidates to build large war chests. Filing opens Jan. 18 and closes Jan. 28, with the primary election set for March 19 and a runoff (if the winner does not take a majority of the vote) to follow April 2. The general election will be held May 7.

* A potentially crowded GOP field: State Sen. Larry Grooms is set to announce his candidacy Thursday, while state Rep. Chip Limehouse and Teddy Turner (son of media mogul Ted Turner) are also in the race. Others may also enter the mix, though Sanford's ex-wife, Jenny Sanford, will not run. We could see a situation where the anti-Sanford vote is split up.

To be clear, Sanford will face challenges. His personal life is sure to come up in the race, and may not sit well with some conservatives. And if he finds himself in a one-on-one runoff, his past may fall under increased scrutiny. For these reasons, he is certainly not a lock. But it’s hard to look at the other characteristics of the race and not conclude that the former governor has a fair shot (and perhaps better than a fair shot) of winning back his old seat.

Sean Sullivan covers national politics for “The Fix.”
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Aaron Blake | January 16, 2013