S.C. lawmakers are walking a fine line with voters as they decide whether or not to impeach Gov. Mark Sanford, experts said.
The choices that legislators make could affect their own political futures in next year's elections, which many expect will feature strong anti-incumbent sentiment among voters.
Democrats think they will benefit at the polls if Republican Sanford stays in office. Meanwhile, some Republicans think that - barring additional revelations about the governor's activities - association with the embattled Sanford may not be as politically toxic to GOP candidates as once feared.
S.C. House members are preparing impeachment resolutions to begin the process to remove Sanford. House members - all up for election next year - know voters will be watching to see if the facts justify their decision about Sanford's future.
"He's the elephant in the room," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "A candidate is going to have to have a well-defined, if nuanced, position on Sanford."
House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham of Lexington, whose duties include helping re-elect Republicans to the House, said legislators will have to explain their decisions.
"If you don't bring the public along and educate them," Bingham said, "even if you do something for the right reason, it may not be perceived as the right reason."
Anti-incumbency appears to be on the rise in South Carolina, which long has venerated politicians with seniority.
Last year, for example, was a difficult one for legislative incumbents. Nearly two-dozen lawmakers - many long-serving or in leadership positions - lost re-election bids or retired.
Many observers also expect an anti-incumbent bent to next year's primary and general elections.
Former S.C. GOP chairman Katon Dawson said he does not know how the Legislature's decision on whether or not to remove Sanford will affect voters.
But there's one early sign that being a Sanford ally might not hurt GOP politicians.
In last week's special election to fill a York County House seat, Ralph Norman, a Sanford ally, easily won the GOP primary. "That was a benchmark that a lot of folks were watching," Dawson said, adding Sanford's ideas - lower taxes and less spending - remain popular with S.C. voters.
But, Dawson added, there is still the Ethics Commission investigation to factor in. "There's a question mark yet."
Former Democratic National Committee chairman Don Fowler of Columbia said Sanford is a political gift for Democrats. Sanford hurts the state - but helps S.C. Democrats - by remaining in office, Fowler said.
If the economy improves, Congress approves a health care bill and Sanford remains in office, Fowler said Democrats could have a good election in South Carolina.
"Republicans are much more on the spot now," he said. "I think (Sanford) is a very obvious, in-your-face kind of factor."
Virginia's Sabato agreed.
"The last thing they want to be next November is Mark Sanford's candidate," Sabato said of S.C. Republicans.