MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. —The conservative electorate of South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District voted Tuesday to resurrect the political career of disgraced former governor Mark Sanford (R) by returning him to his former House seat.
Sanford’s special-election race against Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, 58, a businesswoman and first-time candidate, took twists nearly right up to the last moments. But in the end, he cruised to an easy victory, winning 54 percent of the vote to Colbert Busch’s 45 percent.
“Some guy came up to me the other day, and he said, ‘You look a lot like Lazarus,’ ” Sanford said in his victory speech here.
“I am an imperfect man, saved by God’s grace, and one who has a conviction of the importance of doing something about spending in Washington, D.C.,” he added. “I am going to try to be the best congressman I could have ever been.”
In addition to holding views that aligned perfectly with the district, Sanford, 52, simply proved to be the more adept politician.
Colbert Busch, the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert, had run a campaign in the cautious style of an incumbent — surrounded by handlers, holding comparatively few public events, agreeing to only one debate and offering few specifics on issues.
Sanford, on the other hand, ran the scrappy race of a challenger, even though most voters in this district had seen his name on five previous ballots.
The contrast was evident right up to Election Day. Sanford packed his schedule with 11 appearances, dashing to spots that included a grocery store, an auto parts dealer, a farmers market, a bakery and half a dozen restaurants. Colbert Busch made just one — to vote — before heading to her election night party. Her aides said she was making telephone calls to get out the vote.
“We put up a heck of a fight, didn’t we?” Colbert Busch said in her concession speech. “The people have spoken, and I respect their decision.”
Eugene Platt of the Green Party also was a candidate.
Sanford’s bid for a comeback strained the electorate’s capacity for forgiveness. But in some ways, he may have benefited from the generally low regard in which the public seems to hold politicians.
The scandal surrounding Sanford’s extramarital affair didn’t bother William Lauder. “It happens every day,” the retired shipyard worker said as he left his Mount Pleasant polling place after voting for Sanford.
If bad behavior were a disqualifier, Lauder added, “there’d be nobody up in the Washington.”
Another voter, retired financial administrator Karen Davis, said she had “no hesitation whatsoever” about voting for Sanford. Asked how she would feel if he slipped again, however, she retorted, “God help him if he does.”
Sanford’s win was a triumph of ideology over the ickiness of very public personal failure. Less than four years ago, Sanford — once talked about as a GOP presidential prospect — suffered a spectacular fall when he disappeared for five days on the pretext of hiking the Appalachian Trail. He was discovered instead to have been in Argentina with his mistress, Maria Belen Chapur. She is now his fiancee and was with him here on Tuesday.
Overnight, he became a national laughingstock. His marriage ended. And although he escaped impeachment to finish his term in 2011, he agreed to pay the biggest ethics fine in South Carolina history.
Sanford’s opportunity for a comeback presented itself in December, when then-Rep. Tim Scott (R) was appointed to an open spot in the Senate, leaving a vacancy in the House seat that Sanford had held for three terms in the 1990s.
Sanford bested 15 other candidates to win the GOP nomination, only to set off another tempest when it was revealed that his former wife was taking him to court for trespassing. That prompted the National Republican Campaign Committee to take the unusual step of withdrawing its support.
Colbert Busch, meanwhile, offered First District voters a chance to turn the page. Sanford took every opportunity he could to connect her to labor unions, the national Democratic Party and, particularly, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — going so far as to cart around and “debate” a life-size poster of the California Democrat.
Special elections, which generally draw few voters, are notoriously hard to predict. And this one took so many wild bounces that it was harder to read than most.
“I am predicting victory,” Colbert Busch said after voting on Tuesday.
Sanford also expressed optimism, albeit more cautiously.
“I think you can go back in and you can ask for a second chance in a political sense once,” he said after voting. “I’ve done that, and we’ll see what the voters say.”
On Tuesday night, the answer appeared to be “request granted.”
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