Can Mark Sanford survive?

April 17, 2013

The news out of South Carolina that former governor Mark Sanford had entered his ex-wife's home without her permission quickly led the national Republicans to distance themselves from his candidacy and left everyone in the political world with one question: Could he still possibly win the House special election set for early May?


Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and his fiancee Maria Belen Chapur

No one really knows since the news is just developing in the state. But what's seems clear is that a Sanford victory seems less likely today than it was when the week started.

"It is a Republican district, so he's still likely to win," said longtime South Carolina GOP  consultant Richard Quinn. "But because of his personal flaws he may not."

We've written extensively on the voter psychology surrounding Sanford. He succeeded in the Republican primary and runoff in the 1st district by openly admitting his past mistakes -- most notably disappearing from the state for five days to spend time with a woman who was not his wife -- and casting himself as someone who has learned his lessons and is ready to move on with his life.

Playing the forgiveness card was a very smart strategic move by Sanford. It allowed him to effectively argue that what had happened in the past had made him a stronger and better person, and to shift the conversation in the race from a personal focus to a policy one.

And, until Tuesday night, Sanford was doing much the same in the general election race against Democratic businesswoman Elizabeth Colbert Busch.  Yes, Democrats were attacking Sanford for his "Appalachian Trail" incident but Republicans were quietly confident that in a district that Mitt Romney won by 18 points in 2012 that their candidate would prevail. And Sanford seemed more than capable of running out the clock.

Here's the problem that the latest allegations raise -- and the reason why national Republicans publicly backed away from Sanford: These are incidents that have occurred in the not-too-distant past, timing that makes it far more difficult for him to say that his past indiscretions are, well, in the past.

Now, watching the Superbowl with your son in your ex-wife's beachhouse isn't the same thing as leaving the state for five days when you are the governor, telling your staff you are the hiking the Appalachian Trail and then admitting in a press conference that you were having an extramarital affair. (We still can't believe all of that actually happened.)

But, remember that Sanford is already damaged goods in the eyes of many voters who may well have been planning to cast a ballot for him on May 7. This is, at least, a second offense for him. And some of the quotes and imagery coming out of this latest episode are very tough for Sanford.

This comes from Aaron Blake and Karen Tumulty's piece on the Sanford saga:

The Washington Post has learned that tensions within the family flared up as recently as April 2, at the celebration of Sanford’s runoff election victory when the former governor thrust two of his sons on-stage with the Argentine woman who was at the center of the spectacular sex scandal that broke up his marriage.

For Sanford’s teenage son Bolton, that very public moment marked the first time he had ever been in the  presence of Maria Belen Chapur.

Sanford’s former wife Jenny confirmed in a text message: “That was indeed Bolton’s first intro and both boys were quite upset and visibly so.”

Gut punch.

Colbert Busch's path to victory in this fiscally conservative but socially centrist coastal district, which includes the city of Charleston as well as Hilton Head Island, is to win over Republican-leaning women. And is there anything worse for Sanford to have done then put his boys -- whether knowingly or unknowingly -- into the middle of a drama tied to his now-fiancee? Answer: No.

"Allowing his Argentine girlfriend to show up an the victory party, standing beside his sons, was probably not a good idea," said Quinn, in a massive understatement.

Again, this is a Republican district. And, Sanford was the favorite to win the race before these latest revelations.  And, it's not as though anyone in the 1st district thought Mark Sanford was a saint in his personal life before Tuesday night.

But, there are tipping points in politics as in life. And Sanford's latest imbroglio may tilt the scales enough against him that he won't be able to recover.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan · April 17, 2013