Mark Sanford gambles on South Carolina’s forgiveness

Years after the tearful 2009 news conference in which he admitted an extramarital affair, former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford is returning to politics with a bid for a congressional seat.
(Mary Ann Chastain, Associated Press)

CHARLESTON, S.C. — With election day just over two weeks away, the road from the Appalachian Trail to redemption is starting to get a little muddy for former Republican high-flier Mark Sanford.

Sanford was a popular governor and promising presidential prospect until a sex scandal derailed him. And no run-of-the-mill scandal: While governor, Sanford disappeared from view and a spokesman claimed he was hiking the Appalachians — only to have it become known that he actually was making a clandestine visit to his mistress in Argentina.


A tearful news conference and apology to his wife and four sons followed. He avoided impeachment but wound up paying the largest ethics fine in state history. He and his wife, Jenny, divorced.

Now he’s trying to get back into the game by campaigning for the same congressional seat he held in the 1990s. At almost every stop, he tells voters what they already know: It’s an improbable turn of events.

“Running for Congress was the last thing on my list,” says Sanford, who had been at loose ends since leaving office in 2011. “For all the obvious reasons, I thought politics was over for me.”

The seat unexpectedly came open when Republican Rep. Tim Scott was appointed to replace Sen. Jim DeMint — a retirement so rare, Sanford likes to joke, that it happens only once every thousand years in South Carolina.

But to some voters here in the Low Country, a thousand years would be too soon to put Sanford back into office.

“It was a despicable thing he did. He broke his oath to his family. He broke his oath of office,” said Susan Marlowe, who recently confronted Sanford during a Republican women’s club luncheon at the Country Club of Charleston about the five days that he was AWOL from his job in 2009.

By all accounts, Sanford is the clear front-runner in a crowded Republican field in the March 19 primary. But a runoff is almost a certainty, and waiting in the wings is the likely Democratic nominee, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, a civic activist whose brother, comedian Stephen Colbert, is raising money for her.

In the foreshortened primary campaign, Sanford has several advantages over the other 15 GOP candidates, who include several state legislators. The former governor is helped by a reservoir of past supporters and financial backers, and the fact that the Charleston-area district is more socially tolerant than the rest of this conservative state.

One thing he doesn’t have this time is his now-ex-wife, Jenny, who ran his earlier campaigns. She wrote a blistering book about their marriage but is keeping a low profile.

“Mark did ask me to run his campaign and I told him clearly, I wasn’t interested. I also declined requests to help others in the race and hope to remain fully on the sidelines watching the race unfold like everyone else in the 1st District,” she wrote in response to an emailed question. Jenny Sanford herself pondered running, but dismissed Congress as a “dysfunctional” waste of her time.

Since announcing his run in mid-January, the former governor has made an aggressive effort to shed the baggage that brought him down. In an apologetic campaign commercial, he spoke humbly of “a God of second chances.” Sanford’s appeals to old constituents can verge on psychobabble, with practiced lines like, “Our brokenness is indeed our connection.” More recently, he remarked that he had been so focused on living in the moment that he was becoming “a Buddhist Christian.”

In an interview, Sanford, 52, said he was “overwhelmed” by “the level of human grace” that he had encountered in the campaign.

“Obviously, there’s a vulnerability to me now that people respond to,” he said. “They open themselves up in a way that they didn’t when they think that you’re invulnerable or perfect.”

Some former allies have been less than welcoming. Two Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation recently took the unusual step of endorsing another primary candidate. And opposing campaigns say they are ready to blitz the mailboxes and telephones of local voters with reminders of Sanford’s transgressions.

In an attack ad that urges voters to “break up with career politicians,” political outsider Teddy Turner, the son of media mogul Ted Turner, is mocking Sanford’s apology tour. The ad features a tacky actor who leans into the camera, brandy snifter in hand, and begs the viewer’s forgiveness with syrupy insincerity. “I’m sorry for all the mistakes I’ve made,” he says. “Sugah, just give me one more chance.”

Turner, a teacher at a private high school who said he had already put $200,000 of his own money into the race, predicted that Sanford would have a hard time surviving a runoff. He said internal polling showed that only a minority of voters were backing the former governor and that “the rest of the people want to hang him.”

Joanne Jones, vice chairwoman of the Charleston Tea Party, said that Sanford’s problems with female voters “are bigger than Mark wants to hear.”

“I have more of a problem that he shirked his duties,” she said. “But I was really very surprised to hear a number of women who are my contemporaries who said flat-out they would not vote for him, because he broke his vow to his wife.”

Sanford, in the interview, was cautious about predicting the outcome of the race. And he shied away from earlier comments that seemed to suggest that a future run for higher office wasn’t out of the question, were he to win.

“If I am granted a second chance in life, I want to be the best congressman for the 1st Congressional District that I can humanly be,” he said. “That’s all I’m focused on.”

Apart from his apologies, Sanford is campaigning on his reputation as a fiscal tightwad, proudly telling voters how he rejected federal money under President Obama’s stimulus package. (He makes no reference to the fact that he accepted some of the stimulus money.)

“At a gut level, I felt like I was supposed to do this,” Sanford said. “We’ll find out very shortly whether I’m able to exercise some degree of voice on the things I’ve long cared about.”

The former governor, whose sons were also a prominent part of his past campaigns, says he’s engaged to marry his Argentine girlfriend, former TV reporter Maria Belen Chapur, whom he described as “an intensely private woman.”

He declined to say whether she would make public appearances on his behalf. “Like everything else in the campaign, we’re taking it one day at a time,” Sanford said.