In the end, it wasn’t even that close.
Republican Mark Sanford, the former South Carolina governor whose political career seemed to end in ignominy in 2010, capped a remarkable political comeback Tuesday by defeating Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, 54 percent to 45 percent.
His victory in a Charleston-area House special election came despite Republican worries that the taint surrounding his highly publicized extramarital affair – and unflattering recent publicity concerning a February trespassing incident involving his former wife — would be too much to overcome.
The dramatic arc of the former two-term governor’s narrative made him seem like an updated version of a Robert Penn Warren character: He began as a youthful reformer and outsider, then rose to prominence as a Southern governor with an eye toward the presidency.
But that was before his career unraveled before the nation in 2009. Sanford was forced to admit to an affair with an Argentine mistress after first claiming to be hiking on the Appalachian Trail. His situation was compounded by a rambling and emotional press conference that was televised.
A humbled Sanford, who referred to himself in the special election campaign as “a wounded warrior,” recognized the hurdles he faced in his bid for redemption. While he wasn’t a prime combatant in the culture wars during his three House terms in the 1990s, in a conservative state like South Carolina his public betrayal of his wife and political partner, the state’s popular first lady Jenny Sanford, left him an unsympathetic character.
“I think you can go back in and you can ask for a second chance in a political sense once,” he told The Associated Press on Tuesday after casting his ballot.
Early polling in the Republican-oriented district suggested the party’s nomination of a flawed candidate might prove to be another squandered opportunity at a time when the GOP is struggling with its identity. But late polls suggested a surge in support for Sanford, whose fiscal conservatism was in line with the district’s thinking, over Colbert Busch, the sister of TV comedian Stephen Colbert.
In the end, voters proved willing to give Sanford a second chance — according to unofficial election returns, he carried all five counties that make up the 1st Congressional District.
In doing so, Sanford not only resuscitated his own career, but also gave hope to a legion of disgraced former politicians – among them former Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Democrat who’s considering a bid for New York mayor just two years after resigning his congressional seat in a sexual scandal.