Two Democrats and 16 Republicans are running for South Carolina’s first district Congressional seat in a special election Tuesday. The seat is open because former congressman Tim Scott was tapped to replace Senator Jim DeMint when he retired mid-term.
The biggest name in the race is former Governor Mark Sanford whose infamous affair led to his political downfall. Sanford is trying to stage the political comeback of a lifetime.
And he’s doing it one diner at a time — greeting customers over eggs and grits at Page’s Okra Grill, just outside Charleston in Mt. Pleasant.
“I won’t interrupt breakfast any more than I already am,” Sanford says, “But I’m out and about and would appreciate your consideration on Tuesday.”
Sanford says he was the most fiscally conservative governor in the nation, the first to reject federal stimulus money in 2009. But Sanford’s personal life imploded four years ago when he said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail but he was actually in Argentina having an illicit affair with a woman who is now his fiancée.
Out campaigning in a casual grey jacket and khaki pants, Sanford acknowledges his mistakes and talks about humility and forgiveness.
“There’s an amazing reservoir of human grace out there that I didn’t understand or fully comprehend until now,” he says.
As we were talking, a voter interrupted.
“I just want to let you to know that your story is inspiring,” he says. “Never give up.”
Sanford smiles broadly. He says he’s apologized to voters and spent a lot of time soul searching before friends encouraged him to run again.
“People will give you a second chance,” the former governor says. “Then at some point you have to forgive yourself as well, and you have to stand back up and try and make a contribution wherever you can.”
Sanford is the front runner, and this was his district back in the mid 90’s before he was governor. It runs along the coast from the North Carolina line to Hilton Head — huge live oaks draped with Spanish moss guiding the landscape.
Some say this election is the first real test of how much forgiveness South Carolinians can muster for Sanford.
“When he was governor, people worried about the fact that he had such poor relationship with the General Assembly,” says Mark Tomkins, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina. “Then we had the Appalachian Trail. And I wonder if people have forgiven him and I don’t think we know the answer to that.”
With more than a dozen other GOP candidates running, the race is hard to gauge. Several candidates have loaned themselves hundred of thousands of dollars, and TV ads run constantly telling voters how fiscally conservative they would be.
“As your congressman, I’ll fight to reduce wasteful spending, bring real budget cuts to Washington and oppose any new spending program,” says former state senator John Kuhn who loaned himself $500,000 half a million.
He was campaigning in Bluffton last week, “Thanks for coming to the event. It’s really nice to have you here.”
Only one retired couple showed up — highlighting how tough it is to get voters’ attention. Kuhn takes issue with Sanford’s decision to run and says voters deserve better.
“You ask your God for forgiveness and that’s great for him,” Kuhn says. “But is that what this district in South Carolina wants for a congressman, someone who’s really let them down and really been dishonest?”
Many voters say they haven’t decided yet but there’s at least some feeling of “anyone but Mark Sanford.”
Frank and Cynthia Nappi retired to South Carolina from Connecticut about three years ago.
“I don’t think the public needs him. He had his chance and he blew it,” Frank Nappi says.
“He’s probably part of the good old boy’s system,” Cynthia Nappi adds. “He has not made a positive impression on me at this point.”
But back at the café outside Charleston, Chuck Diggle says the former governor is still the man.
“Right now, I’m still leaning toward Mark Sanford. I mean I’m disappointed about what he did in his personal life but he’s still the most conservative of the bunch as far as I’m concerned,” Diggle says.
As for Sanford, he says he made sure his former wife Jenny was not running before he jumped in, and he says he has the blessing of his four sons.
“I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing in this chapter of life,” Sanford says. “We’ll see whether, you know, if it comes to an end on Tuesday or not.”
No GOP candidate is expected to get a majority of the vote. So that means a runoff next month.