House race: Mark Sanford win crushes Democrats' hope of red-state toehold

Democrats spent $1 million to elect Elizabeth Colbert Busch in true-red South Carolina. But Republican Mark Sanford won handily with a message of fiscal restraint, despite ethical and moral lapses while governor.

Rainier Ehrhardt/AP
Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford gives his victory speech after wining back his old congressional seat in the state's 1st District on Tuesday, in Mt. Pleasant, S.C. Sanford won against Elizabeth Colbert Busch, a Charleston, S.C., businesswoman and first-time candidate, in the special election on Tuesday.

South Carolina Republicans rallied Tuesday to protect a key piece of political turf by electing Mark Sanford, a charming but flawed veteran lawmaker, to Congress for the First Congressional District, a seat he held for three terms during President Bill Clinton's tenure.

Mr. Sanford's convincing win against Elizabeth Colbert Busch, a Charleston, S.C., businesswoman and first-time candidate, ended a zany but impressive comeback for the former governor, who left office in disgrace two years ago after conducting an overseas affair on the state's time and dime, and lying about his whereabouts. (Out of touch for nearly a week, Sanford wasn't hiking the Appalachian Trail, as he had told staff, but meeting a mistress in Argentina.)

Down by nine percentage points in the polls as recently as a week ago, Sanford won by a nine-point margin in the special election to replace Tim Scott, who was appointed late last year by Gov. Nikki Haley (R) to fill the Senate seat left vacant by former Sen. Jim DeMint, who resigned to lead a conservative think tank.

National Democrats tried to exploit a golden opportunity to grasp a piece of turf in the Republican thickets of the South, with Ms. Colbert Busch presenting herself as a political moderate and an independent thinker. But the election ultimately turned less on personal foibles and marital infidelity and more on political ideology and fiscal principles that include constraining Washington spending.

A Sanford win "says that South Carolina is such a deeply Republican state that you can almost run anybody on the Republican label and get them elected," says Scott Buchanan, a political scientist at The Citadel military college in Charleston. "Meanwhile, the Democratic Party had the chance of a decade to capture a seat that's plus 12, plus 14 Republican, and the fact that they couldn't do it has to be demoralizing, for sure."

The big question in the race was how Sanford's moral lapses would play with Republican women voters. As governor, Sanford avoided impeachment, but he ultimately paid a $74,000 ethics fine for in essence vacating his office for a week and conducting an affair on the state's time. He and his wife, Jenny Sanford, have since divorced; he is now engaged to his paramour, Maria Belen Chapur, who has relocated to the low country.

While Colbert Busch in essence tried to run out the clock on the election after going up by nine points in the polls, Sanford, a veteran campaigner, hammered in the waning days on Colbert Busch's alliance with national Democrats, including House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, and expounded at every corner on the evils of profligate spending that he blamed on liberal leaders in Washington.

"I am one imperfect man saved by God's grace, but one who has a conviction on the importance of doing something about spending in Washington," Sanford said in his victory speech in Charleston Tuesday night.

“Today, a grassroots issue-based campaign upset the national Democratic campaign machine," Amy Kremer of the national Tea Party Express group said in a statement. "Voters saw past the personal attacks and elected a Tea Party candidate who is willing to stand up for fiscal responsibility and limited government."

True to the spirit of South Carolina politics, the campaign had some unusual moments, including its original premise: the sister of faux Republican commentator (and Charleston native) Stephen Colbert taking on the man whom Mr. Colbert once called "the governor of the Appalachian Trail."

Two weeks ago, Sanford appeared at an event and began debating with a cutout of Nancy Pelosi. A few days before the election, he accompanied a BuzzFeed reporter to a local mall and asked random women whether they really "hated" him.

In the background, Republicans, aided by national tea party groups, fomented a massive grass-roots effort to warn voters about letting Democrats get a toehold in the South Carolina low country, which hasn't seen a Democrat elected since 1978.

"They [Democrats] spent $1 million in this election and, if they win, they'll spend $5 million the next time," Charm Altman, president of the South Carolina Federation of Republican Women, said before the results were known. She lobbied for Sanford despite some misgivings about his behavior.

Ms. Altman said bedrock fiscal concerns ultimately override lingering anger toward Sanford for his marital infidelity. "We're not electing somebody to be pope; we're electing someone to govern with a strong conservative hand," she says.

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