It’s officially the year of the political comeback, with Mark Sanford winning a congressional seat and Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer attempting their own second acts in New York City.
But not all comebacks are created equal.
Below, we look at some of the most recent scandal-plagued politicians and assess their chances at making a Sanford-esque return to public office.
Former congressman Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.)
The wrong: Sending pictures of himself in various stages of undress to and conversing digitally with women who weren’t his wife — and inadvertently tweeting one of the pictures.
The result: After repeatedly lying about it, he resigned in June 2011.
Running for: New York mayor 2013.
Chances: 20 percent. Weiner is polling near the top of the Democratic primary field, but he would need to get 40 percent of the vote to win the nomination outright – or 50 percent in a two-person runoff if nobody gets to 40 percent. That’s a tall task, and his early status owes in part to the fact that he’s better-known than his opponents. The winner of the Democratic primary will be a heavy favorite.
Former New York governor Eliot Spitzer (D)
The wrong: Patronizing a high-end prostitution service known as the Emperors Club VIP, getting caught on a federal wiretap arranging a rendezvous with a prostitute.
The result: He resigned, almost immediately, in March 2008.
Running for: New York City comptroller 2013.
Chances: 50 percent. We’ll have to see what the early polling says. A poll in October showed people didn’t want Spitzer to run for mayor by 57 to 30 percent, but comptroller is a lower office, so this second chance may be more obtainable. Standing in his way in the Democratic primary is Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who has the support of most top mayoral candidates.
Former presidential candidate John Edwards (D)
The wrong: Having an affair with campaign aide Rielle Hunter between his 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns and fathering a child in the process. He at first denied the affair, then denied fathering a child.
The result: The revelations didn’t hit the mainstream media until mid-2008, after Edwards’s last campaign was over.
Chances: 5 percent. Edwards is certainly a gifted politician, and anything’s possible, but it’s hard to see him recovering from such a doozy of a scandal and his lies about it – especially in a swing state (Edwards was elected to one term as senator of North Carolina before running for president). He has reemerged somewhat into public life, though, and said after his 2012 acquittal on campaign finance charges that “I don’t think God’s through with me.” Politically speaking, we think he is.
Former congressman Eric Massa (D-N.Y.)
The wrong: Accused of sexual misconduct with his congressional staff, he admitted he “groped” and “tickled” one of them, but later clarified that there was, in fact, no groping.
The result: Massa resigned in March 2010, having already announced he wouldn’t seek reelection due to a recurrence of cancer.
Chances: 1 percent. Massa’s behavior was beyond strange toward the end of his tenure, as this Esquire profile shows. Case-in-point: Massa detailed secret meetings between then-Vice President Dick Cheney and then-Gen. David Petraeus in which the two discussed a plot for Petraeus to defeat President Obama in 2012. He labeled it “treason.”
Former senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho)
The wrong: Having a “wide stance,” pleading guilty to soliciting a sexual encounter with an undercover police officer in a men’s bathroom in the Minneapolis airport.
The result: He announced his resignation in September 2007. He later recanted and stayed in office, but he didn’t seek reelection in 2008. He also sought to withdraw his guilty plea, but was unsuccessful.
Chances: 1 percent. A poll in October 2007 showed Idahoans opposed Craig’s decision to serve out his term by 51-21 percent. Given the nature of his offense, it’s hard to see how he would ever be elected again in strongly conservative Idaho.
Former congressman Mark Foley (R-Fla.)
The wrong: Sending indecent and sexually suggestive e-mails and instant messages to underage congressional pages.
The result: Foley resigned one day after the story broke in September 2006.
Chances: 5 percent. Foley has at least shown a desire to return to politics, entertaining the idea of running for mayor of West Palm Beach in 2010. But he opted not to run. And when it comes to scandals, the underage factor makes this one very hard to get past.
Former congressman Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.)
The wrong: Pleading guilty to corruption, accepting more than $2 million in bribes.
The result: Resigned in November 2005, served more than eight years in prison.
Chances: 1 percent. Cunningham was released from a halfway house in June, but jail time is kind of a deal-breaker, and he is 71 years old.
Former congressman Chris Lee (R-N.Y.)
The wrong: Exchanged flirtatious e-mails and sent a shirtless picture to a woman he met on Craig’s List.
The result: He resigned within hours of the story breaking in February 2011.
Chances: 15 percent. Lee’s transgressions (at least the ones we know about) were relatively tame compared to some on this list. But other reports indicated there might be more to the story and his online romancing was more significant than previously thought. His quick resignation suggested he wanted the matter to be over as quickly as possible. Translation: Don’t expect him to go public again. If he did, though, he might be able to pull it off.
The wrong: Admitting to an affair with biographer Paula Broadwell.
The result: The retired four-star general resigned as CIA director in November 2012.
Chances: 15 percent. Petraeus was never really a politician, but he was regularly talked about as a potential GOP presidential candidate, given his (it turned out) too-good-to-be-true reputation. That image is gone, of course, but other politicians have overcome affairs, so who’s to say he couldn’t do it too? The bigger question here is whether he has an appetite for politics at all.
Former senator John Ensign (R-Nev.)
The wrong: In June 2009, he admitted to an affair with campaign aide Cynthia Hampton, who was also the wife of a close friend. The Senate ethics committee also investigated whether Ensign tried to silence Hampton’s husband by promoting his lobbying practice.
The result: Ensign initially said he would seek reelection in 2012, but announced in March 2011 that he had changed his mind. He resigned one month later.
Chances: 15 percent. Ensign left with an ethical cloud hanging over his head, and the Senate ethics committee referred the case to the Justice Department. This makes it less likely Ensign would mount a comeback, though he had been talked up as a potential presidential candidate, and his numbers in the state didn’t totally bottom out.
Former congressman William Jefferson (D-La.)
The wrong: Getting caught with $90,000 in his freezer, being convicted of bribery.
The result: He won reelection in 2006 after the FBI raided his offices, but lost in 2008 after being indicted the year before. He was convicted in August 2009 and began serving his 13-year sentence in May 2012.
Chances: 5 percent. Jefferson is 66 years old, meaning he will be in his 70s by the time he gets out of prison. That said, voters reelected him even after the FBI raided his office, and Louisiana has perhaps the highest corruption tolerance in American politics, so who knows?
Former congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.)
The wrong: Pleaded guilty in February 2013 to diverting hundreds of thousands in campaign funds for personal use.
The result: Federal prosecutors are seeking four years in prison. Jackson resigned his congressional seat in November 2012, as investigators closed in on him.
Chances: 15 percent. Jackson has a famous name, and he’s still just 48 years old, which means he’s got time to regain his reputation. This is also Chicago, where corruption isn’t always a career-ender. And all it really takes is for Jackson to win a primary.
Former congressman Tom DeLay (R-Texas)
The wrong: Convicted in January 2011 of money laundering.
The result: DeLay resigned from Congress in April 2006 after a top staffer pleaded guilty conspiracy and corruption charges related to the investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Chances: 5 percent. DeLay, 66, is on bail pending his appeal, meaning he is still set to serve three years in prison. But he hasn’t gone quietly, writing a book, participating in “Dancing with the Stars” and taking a generally defiant tone toward his conviction. Asked by CNN in 2010 whether he would run for office again, he said, “I’d probably have to get a divorce first.” That’s not quite a ‘no.’
Former congressman Jim Traficant (D-Ohio)
The wrong: Convicted in April 2002 on 10 felony corruption charges. (Not charged for: World’s worst toupee.)
The result: Expelled from the House in July 2002, served seven years in prison.
Chances: 1 percent – and it’s not for lack of trying. Traficant ran for his old seat as an independent in 2002 (while in jail) and also once after he was released, in 2010. He took 15 percent of the vote in 2002 and 16 percent in 2010. At least that’s progress.
Former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey (D)
The wrong: Engaging in an affair with a male adviser.
The result: Resigned in November 2004 after acknowledging that he was “a gay American.”
Chances: 20 percent. Since leaving politics and coming out, McGreevey has been active in ministry – particularly in prisons. That might otherwise seem like a logical way to regain one’s good name, which McGreevey has. And he’s still pretty young at 55. But he said in March that he wouldn’t mount a political comeback. “It’s healthier for me to be in this place,” he told the Philadelphia Enquirer’s Tom Fitzgerald.
Former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich (D)
The wrong: Convicted of trying to sell a Senate appointment.
The result: He was impeached and removed from office in January 2009 after being arrested on corruption charges. He was later convicted on 18 charges and sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Chances: 2 percent. Blagojevich is serving a very long sentence (he has to serve at least 12 years before becoming eligible for parole). He’s only 56 years old, but his release is a long time away, and even in Illinois, this comeback seems wholly improbable. Notably, there was basically no goodwill toward Blagojevich at the end, with one poll showing his approval rating at 7 percent.