You could call it The First Wives Club Comes to Washington.
CNN reported Tuesday that South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) has finalized a short list of candidates to fill GOP Sen. Jim DeMint’s soon-to-be-vacant seat – and that one of those currently under consideration for the post is Jenny Sanford.
Governor Haley later said only her husband knows the actual list. But she did not dispute any of the specific names mentioned. And while the job may still ultimately go to Rep. Tim Scott (R) – seen by many as the leading candidate and Senator DeMint’s preferred choice – there are several reasons Jenny Sanford could be a politically smart pick.
Mrs. Sanford is, of course, best known as the former wife of the state’s former governor, who briefly captivated the nation back in 2009, when he mysteriously disappeared for several days. His aides at first claimed he’d gone hiking on the Appalachian Trail. It turned out he was visiting his mistress in Argentina. Mr. Sanford then went on to compound the situation when he laid bare his feelings in an excruciating, rambling press conference.
A former investment banker, Jenny Sanford stood out for her handling of the incident. Unlike so many political wives, she did not appear with her husband at the press conference when he confessed his infidelity (though it was later revealed that she had known about the affair and had initially hoped to work things out). She wound up moving out of the governor’s mansion and filing for divorce. She also later wrote a memoir.
We have no idea if she's truly interested in serving in the US Senate – though she told the Columbia Free Times she would be “honored” to be asked. She was, by all accounts, a fully engaged partner in her husband’s political career, even managing his gubernatorial campaign.
What we do know is this: Given the number of male politicians who have gone on to rehabilitate their careers after public martial missteps, it would be refreshing should it turn out in this case to be Mrs. Sanford who gets the second act.
In some ways, it’s not unlike the career path of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who turned spousal humiliation into a high-powered political career of her own, first as a senator and then in a high-profile presidential run that drew the support of legions of women (though of course, unlike Mrs. Sanford, she did not leave her husband). Mrs. Clinton is now the subject of widespread speculation about a possible 2016 presidential run.
More to the point, Republicans in particular could use a “girl power” narrative right now – after an election in which they were trounced on women’s issues and lost the vote of single women by an eye-popping 38 percentage points. The party drew additional criticism recently when not a single female lawmaker was appointed to chair a committee in the House.
In Mrs. Sanford’s case, there could be an extra element of just desserts, because her ex-husband has expressed interest in the Senate seat himself. “You don’t invest 20 years of your life into the conservative cause and the political process unless you care deeply both about the direction of the country and those themes,” Mark Sanford told The Wall Street Journal, adding: “What we all pray for is redemption in many different ways in life. Whatever we get wrong, we want that much more to get it right the next time.”
There's at least some evidence that Mrs. Sanford's selection would be a popular one: A recent PPP poll found she was the choice of 11 percent of South Carolinians. Of course, the No. 1 choice among voters in that same poll was comedian Stephen Colbert, a South Carolina native. But if Colbert’s name were removed, Mrs. Sanford became the top choice, with 17 percent.
Either way, it seems South Carolinians – and perhaps Governor Haley – are thinking about symbolism.