It's becoming less and less likely that embattled Gov. Mark Sanford will be impeached.
The longer legislators wait to begin an impeachment investigation, the more political factors are aligning in favor of Sanford, lawmakers and observers say.
A handful of lawmakers drafted an impeachment resolution to be taken up when the Legislature next convenes, scheduled for January. But many in the State House think the push to oust Sanford has lost much of its steam.
A pending State Ethics Commission investigation into allegations against Sanford could revitalize the impeachment effort if it finds the governor committed criminal or serious ethical violations.
But barring that, observers say Sanford has at least three factors in his favor:
- Voters are less likely to see the value of impeachment the closer the calendar moves to Sanford's January 2011 exit from office.
- Sanford's fellow Republicans - and even Democrats - walk a fine line if they push impeachment. S.C. House members, who are entering an election year, risk riling voters who may view removing Sanford as less important than other issues, such as working to revive the state's economy.
- Lawmakers also have reached little consensus on the issue since it first flared in June. Democrats seemingly are just as divided over the future of Sanford, a GOP lame duck who cannot run again, as Republicans.
The calendar, in part, has helped Sanford, who has fought to stay in office.
"The fact the Legislature was not in session at the time of the governor's misdeeds played to the governor's favor," said state Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York, one of four co-sponsors of a drafted impeachment resolution.
Simrill insists the impeachment movement has not lost steam. But he added, "I think it's been replaced by other important issues," including Boeing's recent announcement it is building a North Charleston plant bringing at least 3,800 jobs.
For some, including Simrill, Sanford's actions since June only have confirmed the need to impeach the two-term governor. Sanford has turned himself into a victim, Simrill said, criticizing those who have questioned him and going to court to keep secret the Ethics Commission investigation's preliminary findings.
Simrill thinks impeachment - the equivalent of the House indicting Sanford for trial by the Senate, which could remove him from office - is necessary to fully investigate the governor.
"In the end, Gov. Sanford could be exonerated," Simrill said. "But we need to go through this process. I think he owes that to the people of South Carolina."
'A LOSER IN ELECTIONS'
Those with impeachment experience warn lawmakers run the risk of alienating voters if they pursue Sanford too zealously.
"Voters react by saying, 'What does this have to do with me?'" said Bruce Haynes, a Washington, D.C.-based communications consultant who was U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis' chief of staff during former President Bill Clinton's 1998 impeachment trial. "'How is it going to change my everyday life? Will it make my personal situation better or worse?'"
Polls show a majority of state voters think Sanford should resign. But a recent State newspaper survey of voters found many who support Sanford's resignation stop short of favoring his removal from office. Some argue Sanford has done nothing to warrant being forced from office; others say it is not worth installing a new governor to serve only the 14 months remaining in Sanford's term.
History shows legislators should tread carefully with impeachment, Haynes said, adding many voters objected to Republicans impeaching Clinton in 2008.
That impeachment cost Republican Inglis, his former aide says, in his attempt that year to unseat then-U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-Charleston.
Instead of talking about taxes, jobs and other issues that favored Republicans, Inglis was forced to answer questions about Clinton's impeachment, Haynes said.
Clemson University political scientist Dave Woodard agrees politicians should be wary of the impeachment issue.
"It's a loser in elections," said Woodard. "I don't know of any major problems that Mark Sanford being out of the scene is going to change.
"Voters are very uncomfortable talking about impeachment. In some ways, it's a slap back at them" for electing Sanford twice.
Impeachment also could prove to be a major distraction in the 2010 elections, Haynes said.
The issue has hovered over the nine Democrats and Republicans running for governor on an almost daily basis.
But legislators could feel its heat, too, in a year already shaping up to be tough on incumbents.
"That's the calculus for Republican leadership," Haynes said. "In '98, clearly, on the whole, it (impeachment) was not an electoral positive."
A HOUSE DIVIDED
Impeachment has produced divisions among GOP legislators.
Many Republican back-benchers have bristled at the desire of GOP House leaders to wait for the findings from the Ethics Commission investigation before acting.
But, those leaders counter, those results are needed to win public support for an impeachment effort.
House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington, for one, has said he thinks the public will support impeachment if lawmakers can show it is being done for the right reasons.
Republicans aren't the only party divided by impeachment.
While Sanford makes an easy target for S.C. Democrats looking to score political points, House Democrats showed last month they may be as divided as Republicans over the governor's future.
Two Democrats, state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, and state Rep. Walt McLeod, D-Newberry, led the charge to reject an impeachment resolution introduced by Simrill, state Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, and others.
Some Democratic legislators subsequently questioned why some in their party would stand up for Sanford at all.
"I'm very disappointed," said state Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland.
Democratic in-fighting over the issue could affect the 2010 election, Rutherford said, adding he can not predict what will happen next in the Sanford saga.
"Who knows where it's going to go from here," Rutherford said.
Reach O'Connor at (803) 771-8358.