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Mark Sanford favored to top GOP primary. Is redemption complete?

Disgraced former Gov. Mark Sanford is the front-runner in the 18-person GOP primary in South Carolina's First Congressional District. But he might have trouble in a runoff.

By Staff writer / March 19, 2013

Sabrina Vegis, seen here in Charleston, S.C., says she's voted for Mark Sanford before, but the former governor shouldn't expect her vote this time. Mr. Sanford, trying to make a political comeback, is running in the GOP primary Tuesday in a special election to fill South Carolina's vacant First Congressional District seat.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor

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CHARLESTON, S.C.

In his race to win a seat in Congress, Mark Sanford calls himself a "wounded warrior." Some women in the district call the former South Carolina governor who cheated on his wife a man who has lost his "moral compass." But, for now at least, election experts are calling him "front-runner."

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The Republican primary for South Carolina's First Congressional District is Tuesday, and the internal polling of some campaigns suggests that Mr. Sanford could win one-third of the vote – enough to put him atop the 18-candidate field and qualify him for a runoff, according to the Island Packet, a local news outlet.

If Sanford does prevail, it'll be the beginning of an unlikely revival in a race made high-profile purely by the people involved. There's Sanford, who made "hiking the Appalachian Trail" into a synonym for having an affair; über-liberal cable mogul Ted Turner's son, Teddy, running as a right-wing conservative; and Elizabeth Colbert-Busch, the sister of faux right-wing TV host Stephen Colbert.

But any victory celebration could be short-lived. Sanford himself has benefited from the fact that South Carolina runoffs historically favor the person who came in second. And in this case, in particular, Sanford's past could make it hard for him to win over women and win a majority of the vote against a single challenger.

"One of the things we know for sure is that a guy like Sanford has a good chance to get in the runoff, but more than likely he'll lose in the runoff … because in the second round people consolidate around the guy who's not" controversial, says Seth McKee, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg.

The special election is being held because former Rep. Tim Scott (R), the first African-American elected from the Charleston area, was appointed to the US Senate by Gov. Nikki Haley to replace Sen. Jim DeMint, who resigned in December to run a conservative think tank.

In an 18-person field – even one with recognizable names, like this one – Sanford has by far the most name recognition. And that could be crucial Tuesday.

"It'd be hard to spend enough money to get the name recognition that Sanford has, and, remember, his major issue was the size and scope of government, and he's kind of reemerged when that's on the national agenda in a very big way," says Gibbs Knotts, a political scientist at the University of Charleston. "A lot of things are set up very nicely for him, including this big field. The real question is going to be, assuming that [Sanford makes it to a runoff], whether enough people unite behind the opposition to Sanford."

Indeed, as much as Tuesday could paint Sanford as the unlikely comeback kid, success in a potential runoff could hinge on one crucial demographic: a community of conservative women voters who are not so quick to forgive the former governor's escapades to meet with a girlfriend in Argentina, which led to an ethics reprimand, a legislative censure, and the eventual divorce from his wife.

"I've lost my stomach for him. He's got a poor moral compass," says Sabrina Vegis, a Republican who has voted for Sanford several times in the past, "and I think any wife and mother is going to have a very hard time getting past" the affair.

"Women aren't going to vote for him; the math isn't there," says one longtime South Carolina political consultant, who did not want to be quoted by name.

To counter that, Sanford has tried to turn the issue on its head, says David Woodard, a political scientist, pollster, and consultant at Clemson University in South Carolina. In essence, Mr. Woodard says, it's, "I believe in forgiveness, do you? If you do, you'll vote for me. If you don't, you're a hypocrite."

Sanford's outward humility has more than once brought him to tears, including during an interview he recently conducted with The New York Times.

“It’s hard,” Sanford told a local TV station recently. “I’m scared to death in human terms. I mean, as I say, I’m a wounded warrior. I’m going to step out as best I can and try to advance ideas that I’ve long believed in. But it’s not without fear and trepidation because you know you’re going to get hit, and you’re going to get hit hard.”

How his plea to the people of Charleston and coastal Carolina ultimately goes over will begin to be answered on Tuesday. While most political scientists expect Sanford to emerge into a runoff as the front-runner, the political realities and historical antecedents could take over at that point.

"When you poll on moral questions, nobody will ever tell you what they're truly thinking or whether they'll go out and vote," says Clemson's Woodard. "In South Carolina, though, you don't elect the person, you elect their family, and that runs against Sanford at this point."

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