Five reasons Mark Sanford might last as South Carolina governor

South Carolina's embattled governor, Mark Sanford, could yet face impeachment, but he got a lift this week when most ethics charges against him were dropped.

By , Staff writer

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    South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, left, and first lady Jenny Sanford, right, welcome guests at the Governor's Mansion in Columbia, S.C., for a Christmas Open House on Thursday.
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Now that a South Carolina impeachment panel has dropped the bulk of charges against Gov. Mark Sanford, the embattled pol seems to have won a major victory in his refusal to yield control of the governor's mansion.

What began when the governor went missing in June, ostensibly on a hiking trip in the Appalachians, turned into a potentially impeachable offense when he returned five days later from Argentina, fresh from an extramarital affair. Since then, political opponents dredged up what would become fodder for an impeachment attempt, which could still come Monday.

But on Thursday, the ammunition for the impeachment – charges that Mr. Sanford misused state travel funds and a state plane – largely fell apart as a House impeachment panel dismissed 28 of the 37 ethics complaints about the governor's use of travel funds.

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"Much of it, we don't believe, constitutes a violation at all," said the committee chairman, state Rep. James Harrison (R). "The ones that might constitute a violation don't rise to the level of impeachment."

In that light, here are five reasons Sanford, a Republican, just might survive to see the end his term:

The love letters. The governor's emotional attachment to former Argentinian TV anchor Maria Chapur, while inappropriate, seems genuine and deep – a factor that may have made him a more sympathetic figure in the eyes of some South Carolinians.

The Daily Beast's Janice Min, in a story on celebrity mistresses, noted that "Mark Sanford’s choice of a somewhat age-appropriate, apparently educated and sophisticated professional he called his 'soulmate' [is] almost unheard of."

His letters to her, published by The State newspaper in June, are full of references to Ms. Chapur's glowing eyes and "the special nature of your soul."

The big Boeing deal. A big criticism of Sanford's tenure has been that South Carolina is steadily losing ground to neighbors like Georgia and North Carolina on the economic development front, and its unemployment rate ranks among the highest in the South.

But the announcement in late October of Boeing's decision to move a big plant and as many as 4,000 jobs to North Charleston undercuts that argument – especially because the state, including the governor, played a big role in providing incentives that swayed the aeronautical giant's decision.

Seattle Weekly quoted state Rep. Kenny Bingham saying, "I think our focus is going to be moving South Carolina forward." Quipped the SW: "Roughly translated [that] comes to: It's probably not smart to waste our time reminding the country that our highest elected official cheats on his wife."

Sanford's replacement: a loose cannon? If Sanford is impeached, youthful Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer would serve out the term. Though a political force by himself, Mr. Bauer is seen by many as more of a loose cannon than Sanford, making the governor seem downright Peter Parker-esque in comparison. Bauer highlights include denying rumors that he's gay, crashing a small plane, and getting out of two speeding tickets, one that clocked him at near the 100 m.p.h. mark.

Who cares? The ethics hearing this week was no circus, writes WFAE-FM reporter Julie Rose. Instead, reporters were pretty much the only ones who showed up to the hearing. Even Sanford didn't bother to attend, sending his lawyers instead.

"The public has really gotten tired of the story – we're at almost the six-month mark here," Robert Oldendick, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina, told Ms. Rose. "There is also not the sense in the public that anything is close to happening at this point."

Other scandals overshadow Sanford. With most of the ethics charges dismissed, the case is back to square one: Was Sanford remiss in leaving the state and turning off his cellphone for five days?

That's obviously a big deal, but what's worse: Lying to his staff about his whereabouts and being AWOL for a few days, or reminding the entire nation of South Carolina's political obstreperousness – a trait defined by Union loyalist James Petigru in 1860 when he described the Palmetto State, in an oft-quoted quip, as "too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum"?

Indeed, how do Sanford's shortcomings compare, in the public square, with the state treasurer being sentenced to prison last year for cocaine possession, the jailing of the state ag commissioner for his ties to a cockfighting ring, or the resignation of a conservative school board member after it came to light she had posted "adult" fiction on the Internet?

Still, Sanford is not out of the woods. The original "abandonment of office" charge could yet stick. But cobbling together a two-thirds vote to impeach seems more difficult now, and the House is more likely to move toward a censure, analysts say.

Meanwhile, the intricacies of the Sanford case have caused some commentators to go a little ga-ga. Reacting to this week's go-around, former Sanford press secretary Will Folks writes on FitsNews.com:

"The Importantville Impeachers and Buenos Aires Narcissists battled to a 6-6 tie in Game Whatever of the seemingly interminable 2009 Impeachment Series – an ongoing battle necessitated by S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford’s repeated refusal to resign from his largely ceremonial office."

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