COLUMBIA — Mark Sanford spoke of a God of “eighth chances” during his acceptance speech Tuesday night, but the former S.C. governor’s return to elected office owed as much to pocketbook issues as forgiveness.
Reminding voters of his fiscally conservative record in his previous stint in Congress while painting Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch as a puppet of Washington’s liberal Democratic establishment, the Republican won a comfortable 9-percentage-point victory in South Carolina’s special 1st District race.
Polls showed Sanford gained momentum as he repeated the name of Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a liberal congresswoman from California whose tax-and-spend policies turn off Lowcountry conservatives.
S.C. political observers who predicted voters in the 1st District, which includes Charleston and Hilton Head Island, would be more forgiving than those in other parts of the state to Sanford’s past failings were proven right.
Sanford claims political redemption just two years after leaving the governor’s office after paying a state-record ethics fine but without his wife, who divorced the two-term governor and former three-term 1st District congressman after he confessed to an affair.
“Despite his unique flaws, it was unwinnable race for a Democrat,” S.C. Republican consultant Walter Whetsell said of Tuesday’s contest.
Some state Democratic leaders had hoped that a narrow Colbert Busch loss would show S.C. Democrats can be competitive with Republicans in a GOP-dominated district – hope Democrats will need next year for state Sen. Vincent Sheheen’s expected rematch against first-term Republican Gov. Nikki Haley.
But Democrats have nothing to crow about after failing to beat Sanford, a damaged candidate who lost the backing of the Republican National Congressional Committee at one point in the 1st District campaign, said Don Fowler, a former Democratic National Committee chairman from South Carolina.
“A loss is a loss is a loss,” he said.
S.C. GOP chairman Chad Connelly said 1st District voters marked the path for other S.C. voters to follow next year.
“The Democrats wanted this bad. They wanted to start the narrative that they could gain a foothold in South Carolina,” Connelly said. “Vince Sheheen has got to be the most discouraged guy in South Carolina.”
Citadel political scientist Scott Buchanan said S.C. voters should not read too much into Tuesday’s results when it comes to predicting the 2014 gubernatorial race. “This was a referendum on Mark Sanford,” Buchanan said.
But, Buchanan added, Democrats lost a golden opportunity in Tuesday’s contest, which saw Democrats and Colbert Busch outspend Sanford and Republicans. During the campaign, Sanford had to answer questions about secretly leaving the country while governor in 2009 to see his Argentinian lover, who is now his fiancee, and paying $74,000 in ethics fines.
“The only reason Colbert Busch has been in this is Mark Sanford,” Buchanan said. “With all the money they (Democrats’) spent, this is very demoralizing. This was the Democrats’ chance of a decade to capture this seat.”
While Colbert Busch was a political newcomer who did not have a record to attack, 1st District voters were concerned she was too risky to send to Washington as their representative, GOP consultant Whetsell said.
Sanford needs to thank Colbert Busch for agreeing to only one debate and making fewer public appearances than the ex-governor, Whetsell said. “Her effort to run the clock out gave Mark Sanford an opportunity to make this race something other that his peccadilloes.”
Not even Colbert Busch’s famous brother, TV star Stephen Colbert, could push her into the U.S. House. He hosted three fundraisers and endorsed her on his Comedy Central show, “The Colbert Report.”
Sanford should not face a major Republican challenge in 2014 after beating 15 competitors in the GOP primary.
He must, however, avoid further problems with his ex-wife, Jenny, political observers said. News last month that Sanford is scheduled to go to family court Thursday over a trespassing allegation at his ex-wife’s Sullivan’s Island home hit him hard in polls.
But that deficit ebbed as Sanford hammered Lowcountry voters with his economic message.
“He managed to get Republicans to forgive him,” University of South Carolina professor Mark Tompkins said. “Withstanding all the challenges he faced, he should be able to hang on to the seat.”