He’s got the experience. He’s got the cash. And folks certainly know who he is. But will voters forgive Mark Sanford?
The former S.C. governor whose tenure ended under the disgrace of an affair is poised to run for the job in Congress where his mercurial career began.
Sanford is all but certain to run for the seat being vacated when U.S. Tim Scott, R-North Charleston, joins the U.S. Senate on Jan. 3, three S.C. GOP operatives told The State on Friday. A formal announcement is expected after the new year. Filing for a special election is scheduled tentatively to start Jan. 18.
Sanford and his representatives reportedly have called state political leaders to gauge interest. He would not have chosen to run without thinking he has gathered the backing needed to return to Congress, sources said.
Sanford could win over voters wanting a fiscal conservative to fight the federal government’s massive deficit. But he must overcome recent abysmal favorability ratings among South Carolinians, even those in his own party.
“People still like the product he’s selling, despite the seller being flawed,” a Republican source said.
The former governor’s expected entry will push his ex-wife, Jenny, out the race, three sources said.
Speculation about Jenny Sanford’s political aspirations grew after Gov. Nikki Haley, a protégé of her husband, put the former investment banker on a short list to succeed U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, who is resigning to head the Heritage Foundation think tank. Haley on Monday appointed Scott, who will be the first African-American U.S. senator from the South since Reconstruction.
While Jenny Sanford has not publicly discounted a run, “I’m pretty sure she does not want to go through the drama” of competing against her ex-husband, a GOP operative said.
Mark Sanford held the 1st District U.S. House seat from 1995 to 2001 after being elected as part of Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolution. He was governor from 2003 to 2011.
Since leaving office, Sanford has worked as a political commentator for Fox News.
Word of Sanford’s congressional run was leaked this week to weed out potential competitors in what is expected to be a crowded special primary election, tentatively slated for March 19, a source said.
“He gets a two-week head start,” said another GOP operative, who like others declined to speak on the record because of Republican working relationships. “It will separate the men from the boys.”
Sanford might have enough money remaining in his campaign coffers to run the special election in the GOP-leaning district along the Lowcountry coast “without raising a dime from new donors,” the operative said.
He has $124,000 in his congressional campaign account that has been dormant for 12 years. Sanford also has more than $1.1 million in his gubernatorial campaign account. He could ask donors to switch their contributions to a congressional race, the S.C. Ethics Commission said.
Sanford could access quickly $400,000 from the gubernatorial account, according to one estimate, which would give him the $500,000 needed to run the truncated congressional race, a GOP operative concluded.
Major Republican challengers for the seat could include: Senate Transportation chairman Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley; state Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston; and newly elected state Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston, son of late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond.
In addition to cash, Sanford has name recognition – a premium in a race that’s just three months away.
But some of that recognition carries the baggage of his 2009 affair with an Argentinian woman while he was governor. Sanford told his staff he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail, but he was seeing his lover in South America.
He tearfully admitted the affair in a State House news conference hours after being caught coming off his return flight by a reporter from The State. Sanford’s wife, Jenny, left the Governor’s Mansion and, later, divorced him.
Sanford became engaged this year to the other woman, Maria Chapur. No wedding date has been announced, though some political watchers think he might want to tie the knot soon.
“It would matter to people to see him make that commitment,” state Republican Party chairman Chad Connelly said. “People tend to be forgiving in South Carolina – I would like to think.”
But Katon Dawson, the state GOP chairman during much of Sanford’s administration, does not think the former governor has completed his personal rehabilitation.
“He might be able to convince people things are better until the TV ads start,” Dawson said. “I want to know why he is doing this.”
Efforts to reach Mark and Jenny Sanford were unsuccessful Friday.
Any race by Sanford likely would be the first without the help of his ex-wife, his past de-facto campaign manager.
“She’s 50 percent of the reason for the successes he’s had,” Dawson said. “She ran well-organized, very disciplined campaigns for him. Filling that role will be tough.”
Jason Miller, campaign manager for Sanford’s 2006 re-election run, is thought to be heading his congressional race, three sources said.
The conventional wisdom among veteran S.C. political operatives is Sanford is a shoe-in to make a runoff that he will have trouble winning.
Consultant Walt Whetsell said he sees Sanford performing like former Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer in his Republican bid to win the new congressional seat based in the Pee Dee. Bauer, who boasted the top name-recognition and money among candidates, received the most votes in the primary but lost in runoff to Horry County Council chairman Tom Rice, who worked with Whetsell.
Jack Bass, a retired College of Charleston political scientist, said he does not think Sanford’s entry will scare off any candidates for the 1st District seat. The former governor’s staunch positions, such as refusing to take federal stimulus money as the economy soured, will cost him at the ballot where voters have tired of ideological stand-offs in Congress, he said.
Then, there’s the fake hiking trip.
“I feel certain that voters don’t want to relive that embarrassment,” Bass said.
Sanford has not won back South Carolinians, polls indicate.
He received a 30 percent favorability rating statewide in a recent survey by Public Policy Polling. His rating rose to about 40 percent among Republicans.
Democrats need the GOP to have an exceptionally bad candidate for a chance to win the 1st District seat, Public Policy director Tom Jensen said.
“Mark Sanford is an exceptionally bad candidate,” Jensen added. “I totally don’t see him getting elected.”