Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford handily won the South Carolina 1st Congressional District special election by 9 points, beating Elizabeth Colbert Busch. Pollsters had the race close; it wasn’t.
Republicans are relieved not to have the “GOP in decline” headlines. Indeed, the uber-conservative district shows how uncompetitive most congressional seats can be. Sanford certainly showed that just about any “R” could win that seat. Talk of primarying him in 2014 is premature and probably unrealistic. The voters have accepted him, and they are not likely to recover their (moral) senses in 2014.
The sobering lesson for both parties is that personal, even egregious, scandal is not a disqualifier for public office. (New Yorkers had better steel themselves for Anthony Weiner’s mayoral campaign.) In our Oprah-ized culture, apparently simply saying sorry is enough, as long as the misconduct is “personal.” Gone for good, I think, is the sense that behavior in your personal life reflects character and therefore is relevant to one’s political qualifications.
Liberals who frown on being “judgmental” will breathe a sigh of relief, as will many unfaithful spouses considering future office. (They’d be wise to confess soon, thereby making the campaign into a test of the voters’ “willingness to forgive.” Sigh.)
But social conservatives should take this result seriously as an indication that even in a low-turnout race in a Republican district appeals to personal morality and approbation for sexual misconduct carry little weight. Yes, one can bemoan the voters’ values (or lack thereof), but it is a warning that the public’s willingness to accept all sorts of behavior out of some sense of “fairness” (he apologized didn’t he?) is nearly limitless. That has implications for the sorts of appeals they make on everything from “traditional marriage” to sex education. In short, Americans, including Republicans, aren’t very susceptible to appeals based purely on morality.
Whether we are becoming a more libertarian or a libertine society is a matter of debate. But the real take-away is that Republicans talk a good game on “family values” but don’t take it all that seriously.
Democrats should also recognize that, as the Cook Political analyst David Wasserman tweeted last night, there is “fundamental problem for Dems: if they can’t beat Sanford”: How can “they beat less damaged GOP candidates” in other races? In a gerrymandered country, they probably can’t. Their consolation prize is the ability to mock the GOP’s obsession with “traditional marriage” only when it comes to gays.