The Mark Sanford affair – the South Carolina soap opera tinged with romance, heartbreak, political power, and an entire state on the precipice of financial disaster – now moves on to its next scene: The Redneck Riviera.
The annual GOP caucus retreat in Myrtle Beach, S.C. – usually reserved for dull talking points and afternoon golf – has suddenly found itself weighing the future of an embattled governor burdened with revelations of a torrid affair, lies and obfuscation about a five-day fling in Argentina, and allegations of illegal use of a state airplane.
The retreat “is going to be a showdown between Republicans who are ready to move against the governor and a speaker of the House who, for whatever reason, is not there yet,” says Will Folks, editor of FitsNews.com, an online news site that covers the backrooms of South Carolina politics.
The junket takes on even more import after Wednesday’s call by Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer for the governor to resign. Governor Sanford rebuffed the offer, saying he won't be "railroaded" out of town.
Americans watching developments in South Carolina have to wonder who’s right: Is it the governor who says people understand that God puts imperfect people in all kinds of jobs? Or is it his political opponents who say that Sanford’s tumultuous summer has “paralyzed” a legislature facing issues ranging from a $100 million budget deficit to economic development strategies that have left South Carolina floundering behind its Southern neighbors.
To be sure, Mr. Bauer’s well-timed call is likely to only give fuel to a groundswell coalition of conservative Republicans and some Democrats gathering around an impeachment effort.
“Everything in this state is Hatfield and McCoys, political families that fight back and forth, and a legislature whose votes are tied to political empires,” says Mr. Folks. “There are a few leaders and a bunch of lemmings, and Bauer was trying to get some of those lemmings off the fence.”
Standing in their way is House Speaker Bobby Harrell, who, under a weak constitutional governor, is one of the most powerful people in the state. So far, Mr. Harrell has taken a cautious approach and is likely to urge legislators to wait for the results of an Ethics Commission inquiry into the Sanford affair.
Instead, Republican House members are likely to push for a special impeachment session to “air the dirty laundry,” says Neal Thigpen, a political science professor emeritus at Frances Marion University in Florence, S.C.
“It’s an embarrassment for the people of the state, that’s what lawmakers are hearing from constituents,” says Mr. Thigpen. “The travel accusations are small potatoes. This is about the five- or six-day absence, and really it’s about the woman.”
Harrell will want to do what's best for the Republican Party, Thigpen adds.
“If you continue to stir this stuff [by starting impeachment proceedings], the thing can only get worse and draw more adverse publicity for the state,” he says. “He might go with the school of thought that says, ‘Listen, leave this stuff alone. Just let Sanford twist slowly in the wind for the next 16 months. That’s what’s best for the party.’ ”
Democrats can only sit on the sidelines and grin. They’ve already got an unprecedented five announced gubernatorial candidates and, for the first time in years, a real shot at the governor’s mansion.
That means that this year, for the Republicans, the weekend rounds of golf might have to wait.