Mark Sanford's victory over businesswoman Elizabeth Colbert Busch (D) in a South Carolina special election on Tuesday puts an exclamation point on one of the most remarkable comebacks in political history.
The central question we -- and everyone else -- is asking the day after is how the hell did he pull it off? How did a governor who left office in 2010 dogged by his admission of an extramarital affair who then faced trespassing charges from his ex-wife during the campaign wind up winning?
Our answers -- gleaned from conversations with Republican strategists and our own observations -- are below. What do you think?
* He ran in a Republican district. Mitt Romney won the 1st by 18 points in 2012. Sanford carried the seat with more than 60 percent in each of his gubernatorial campaigns. The district hasn't been represented by a Democrat since the early 1970s. This was not a fair-fight sort of seat. A generic Republican would start any race against a generic Democrat with a clear edge. Sanford is obviously not a generic Republican -- truer words were never typed -- but he got enough (actually, plenty) of the district's GOPers to turn out for him. Did some of them hold their nose while voting for him? Sure. But they still voted for him. And they all count the same.
* He was the better candidate. In basketball, the team with the best player usually wins. (It's why the Miami Heat are still the favorite to win the NBA championship this year.) In politics, the better candidate usually wins. And, Sanford was quite clearly the better candidate on the stump.
Sanford has always had a folksiness about him to which voters in the state respond; there's a reason he's never lost a single election. He also is (and always has been) a gifted communicator on television. Sanford's go anywhere, talk to anyone approach (more on that below) worked to defuse some of the negativeness directed at his personal life and seemed to convince enough people that he wasn't that bad a guy.
Colbert Busch, on the other hand, displayed many of the traits of a first-time candidate -- struggling to connect with the moderates and GOP-leaning voters she needed to win over.
* He outworked her. Give Sanford this: He understood the challenge before him -- self-inflicted, of course -- and set out to do everything in his power to overcome it. He did, according to the Post's Karen Tumulty, 11 events in the final day of the campaign. Colbert Busch, by contrast, ran a sort of quasi-incumbent strategy, limiting her campaign appearances in hopes (we presume) of keeping the spotlight on Sanford. That was a mistake as Sanford looked like the hungrier candidate, the person who really wanted the job and was willing to do whatever it took to win people over.
* His campaign team was outstanding. Sanford ran a flawless GOP primary and runoff campaign focused on redemption and the power of second chances. In the wake of the revelations about his trespassing at his ex-wife's house, he appeared to go rogue for roughly 10 days with a series of odd strategic "moves" that nearly cost him the race. But, in the closing weeks, Sanford started to listen to his consultants again -- Jason Miller doing ads and general strategy, Jan van Lohuizen doing polling, Jon Kohan as campaign manager and Joel Sawyer as communications adviser -- and re-focused his message to one about Colbert Busch's ties to national Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
That message, as Sanford himself acknowledged Tuesday, was what led him back from near-certain political destruction. Wrangling a candidate like Sanford, who has seen a lot of success in his political life and tends to think he is his own best adviser, isn't easy but his campaign team did it -- and deserve a ton of credit.
(Also worth noting that Sanford's team, knowing that grassroots energy within the GOP base for him might be a problem, put together an extensive voter identification and turnout program that quite clearly worked.)
* May 1. That was the day that South Carolina Sens. Lindsey Graham (R) and Tim Scott (R) as well as Gov. Nikki Haley (R) all expressed their support for Sanford's candidacy. (Haley appeared at a fundraiser for Sanford in Charleston that day.) Support from that trio made it okay for establishment Republicans, who disapproved of Sanford's personal behavior, to vote for him because he was far closer to their views on issues than Colbert Busch. While the national party walked away from Sanford, the key GOP leaders in the state didn't. They stood behind him when he needed it most and if you watched the polling from May 1 until election day, it all moved in Sanford's favor.
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