MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. — Just two weeks after former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford won the Republican nomination in a special election for a House seat, his bid for a political comeback veered back into weirdness on Wednesday amid revelations that his former wife is taking him to court for trespassing and that the national GOP is washing its hands of his candidacy.
Sanford’s strong victory in the April 2 primary had made him the presumptive favorite in this heavily Republican congressional district. It was also read as a sign that he had begun to find redemption after the 2009 adultery scandal that ended his marriage and put his governorship in jeopardy.
A new round of setbacks began when the Associated Press reported that Sanford and his ex-wife, Jenny Sanford, were due to appear in court on May 9 — just two days after the special election to fill a vacant House seat that Mark Sanford once held.
Sanford has been ordered to appear at a hearing on his ex-wife’s complaint that she caught him leaving her house in February, using his cellphone as a flashlight. He said in a statement on Wednesday that he had gone to the house to watch the Super Bowl with his son while his ex-wife was away.
Tensions within the family also flared at Sanford’s victory rally on April 2, when he put two of his four sons onstage with the former mistress who is now his fiancee. For 17-year-old Bolton Sanford, that very public moment was the first time he had ever been in the presence of Maria Belen Chapur, according to Jenny Sanford.
“That was indeed Bolton’s first intro and both boys were quite upset and visibly so,” Jenny Sanford said in a text message.
A spokesman for Mark Sanford declined to comment.
Sanford’s stumbles have significantly brightened the prospects of Democratic nominee Elizabeth Colbert Busch, a businesswoman and political newcomer who has been making few public appearances but who has benefited from the reflected celebrity and fundraising help of her brother, comedian Stephen Colbert. In a brief appearance at a diner here on Wednesday, Busch declined to comment on the latest controversy surrounding her opponent, saying she preferred to focus on jobs and the economy.
Busch’s best hope of victory in this district, which went 58 percent for Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential contest, is to win a significant share of the votes of women — both independents and Republicans, her strategists say.
Sanford’s behavior is one reason her team believes she has a chance of doing that.
“I’m definitely not a supporter of his, is how I’d put it,” said Alissa DeCarlo, a waitress at the Boulevard Diner, where Busch made a quick round of the tables, making small talk with patrons.
The National Republican Congressional Committee on Wednesday took the unusual step of signaling that it will not spend money on his campaign.
“Mark Sanford has proven he knows what it takes to win elections. At this time, the NRCC will not be engaged in this special election,” the NRCC said in a statement, which was first reported by Politico.
The committee has spent very little on the race so far, but its public declaration that it would not was a sign of its dismay over its prospects for holding on to a conservative district. The House seat was vacated when then-Rep. Tim Scott was appointed to fill the unexpired Senate term of Jim DeMint, who resigned in December.
A Republican familiar with the committee’s decision, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss strategy, said it would be “foolish” for the party to invest in Sanford’s campaign.
“It’s not out of the realm of possibility for him to win — stranger things have happened in special elections,” the Republican said. “But the fact that he wasted precious time and money rehabilitating his image, only to squander that, makes it very foolish for outside groups to commit resources.”
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report downgraded Sanford’s chances on Wednesday, labeling the race a tossup after the NRCC decision.
At one point, Sanford’s brand of combative conservatism had elevated him to the ranks of those who were frequently talked about as potential presidential contenders.
His affair became public after he disappeared for five days in June 2009, saying he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. It turned out the trip was actually an assignation in Argentina with Chapur, whom Sanford then tearfully declared to be his “soul mate.”
Yet he also has seemed unable to break his bond with Jenny Sanford, which was a political partnership as well as a marriage. In fact, when he decided to run again for his old congressional seat, Sanford even asked his ex-wife to consider managing his campaign, as she had his early races. Jenny Sanford declined.
In her court complaint, Jenny Sanford contended that the former governor “entered into a pattern of entering onto plaintiff’s property. Plaintiff has informed defendant on a number of occasions that this behavior is in violation of the court’s order and has demanded that it not occur again.”
In a statement, Sanford said he had gone to his wife’s house to watch the second half of the Super Bowl with his 14-year-old son.
“Given she was out of town, I tried to reach her beforehand to tell her of the situation that had arisen, and met her at the back steps under the light of my cellphone when she returned and told her what had happened,” he said. “There is always another side to every story, and while I am particularly curious how records that were sealed to avoid the boys dealing with embarrassment are now somehow exposed less than three weeks before this election, I agree with Jenny that the media is no place to debate what is ultimately a family court matter.”
It was not the first legal complaint that Jenny Sanford has lodged regarding her husband’s behavior during their separation and since their divorce in 2010.
According to documents obtained by The Washington Post, Jenny Sanford filed a complaint against Mark Sanford in March 2012, alleging that he violated the terms of having their sons on the Sanford family’s Coosaw plantation. Both sides declined to offer any more details.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.
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