Mark Sanford inches toward redemption, but tea party dark horse looms

Former Gov. Mark Sanford topped the Republican primary for an open seat congressional seat in South Carolina. But his opposition in a Republican runoff – and potentially in the general election – is intriguing.

Bruce Smith/AP
Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford addresses supporters in Charleston, S.C., Tuesday, after advancing to the GOP primary runoff in a race for a vacant South Carolina congressional seat.

Former two-time South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who left office in disgrace after he lied about hiking the Appalachian Trail in order to spend time with a mistress in Argentina, officially began his trek toward political redemption Tuesday by garnering 36 percent of the Republican primary vote ahead of a special congressional election slated for May 7.

The early read shows a likely showdown between Mr. Sanford and Democrat Elizabeth Colbert-Busch, whose brother is the Comedy Central satirist Stephen Colbert. Yet Tuesday's election also revealed a potential Republican dark horse – former Charleston County Commission Chairman Curtis Bostic, a former Marine with tea party bona fides – who could recalibrate the dynamics of the shortened campaign.

Since no Republican candidate received 50 percent of the vote in the Tuesday primary, Sanford and Mr. Bostic will meet in a runoff in two weeks. Ms. Colbert-Busch, on the other hand, earned 95 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, bolstering the intriguing possibility that a Kennedy-inspired political neophyte could knock off a vulnerable Republican and send a Democrat to Congress from one of the country's most solidly anti-big government corners.

The fact is, while it will be an uphill climb for Colbert-Busch, both potential Republican candidates are particularly vulnerable, especially Sanford.

"Sanford's got the money, and he's got the grasp on the issues, and also he's much closer to the 50-plus-1 percent than Bostic, making him the heavy, heavy favorite," says Knotts Gibbs, the political scientist at the College of Charleston. "The questions for Sanford are on the moral and ethical issues, where Bostic has support from the part of the Republican party that could be most bothered by some of Sanford's past decisions and actions."

While South Carolina's First Congressional District, which encompasses a coastal stretch of Lowcountry from Charleston up to Myrtle Beach and on to the North Carolina border, witnessed the start of the Civil War at Fort Sumter and for years reelected former segregationist Strom Thurmond, it is today the most progressive area of South Carolina.

In-migration of mostly wealthy snowbirds from up north and a growing population of younger migrants has tempered the region's ardent social conservatism. While Obama lost by 18 points to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in November, a Democrat came within 4 points of winning the district in 2008.

In another sign of the winds of change, the special election is to replace Tim Scott, an African-American Republican whom Gov. Nikki Haley named to replace Sen. Jim DeMint, who retired in December.  

The stakes in Tuesday's primary were arguably highest for Sanford, who has gone through a divorce since he left office in 2010 after two terms as governor. He previously represented the first district in Congress for three terms in the 1990s, always campaigning as a small government fiscal conservative. His comeback campaign has centered on expressions of at times tearful humility and the Christian value of redemption after sin.

"We all hope for a second chance. I believe in a God of second chances," Sanford said after the race on Tuesday, according to the Associated Press. "On a professional level, we have had a couple of months to talk about the issues. In that regard it has been a treat and a blessing."

While name recognition drove Sanford's comfortable primary margin – Bostic got 13 percent of the vote, narrowly securing second place – l'affaire Appalachian may be difficult to overcome, given that many female voters are likely to stay home or even vote for the female alternative on the other end of the ballot, Colbert-Busch. Even many female Republicans in South Carolina say they were not moved by Sanford's insistence that he had found his real soul mate in his Argentinian girlfriend, to whom he is now engaged.

Politicians seen as "lady killers" tend to struggle in South Carolina, says David Woodard a political scientist at Clemson University in South Carolina. Former Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, for example, was widely seen as the favorite to win the seat for the Seventh Congressional District last year.

But Mr. Bauer, who is younger, single, and generally considered handsome, campaigned with a gaggle of young women in tow to press stickers onto the lapels of potential voters. Bauer prevailed in last year's primary, but then lost in the runoff.

Bauer "had money and connections and visibility, but in the end those things did not give him the license to represent the Seventh District," says Professor Woodard. "I can't think of any politician in South Carolina who's been able to come back from defeat, let alone scandal, and win, but you never see anyone who says that in a poll."

Bostic represents a clear alternative to Sanford. A Charleston attorney, Bostic spent almost no money on TV ads, instead crisscrossing the district and engaging church communities and tea party groups.

"God is good," was the first thing he said to supporters after winning a spot in the runoff.

"All the time," the crowd responded in unison.

"They thought this seat could be bought," Bostic said, according to the Goose Creek, S.C., Patch, a news website. "We can do things people don't expect."

South Carolina political consultants say Bostic, too, has weaknesses that can be exploited in the heat of a brief general election campaign, including the fact that he doesn't live in the district, and he once defended a Christian adoption agency accused of human trafficking.

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