Mark Sanford in South Carolina: Will His Past Catch Up With Him?

Mark Sanford has finally returned from hiking the Appalachians.

The former South Carolina governor has managed to come back from his disgraceful fall from grace back in June of 2009 to run for South Carolina’s first congressional district. And to the surprise of many political junkies, he is actually making it a close race, running ahead by 53% to his opponent Curits Bostic, a former Marine, practicing attorney, and Charleston City Council member, according to a poll by Public Policy Polling.

This is a titanic shift in Sanford’s fortunes from the lows he reached back in 2009 when his affair with an Argentinian journalist, Maria Belen Chapur, quickly brought down his governorship. In wake of the discovery of the affair and his disappearance, he went though his wife divorcing him, being fined more the $70,000 for ethics violations, and being censured by the legislature. He is now engaged to Chapur and managed to turn around his political career, coming out ahead in the first special election for the empty congressional seat, although not garnering enough votes to avoid a runoff. It is likely that Sanford will win the runoff and face the Democratic nominee, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, sister of comedian Stephan Colbert, in the general election. But will Sanford’s good luck get him to Capitol Hill?

While South Carolina is solidly Republican, with five out of six congressional seats Republican and both Senate seats in Republican hands along with a Republican governor, Nikky Haley, and Republican majorities in both state house of legislature, it turns out that this specific race is edging towards a toss up. Public Policy Polling has Busch leading Sanford 47%-45% and tied with Bostic at 43%.

It is quite possible that Sanford’s past may be catching up with him. When you go further into the details on the candidates, a clear favorability gap emerges. Colbert Busch has a 45%/31% favorable/unfavorable rating. This is remarkably better then Sanford, who has a 34%/58% favorable/unfavorable rating. An analysis of the party voting habits further reinforces this favorability gap, with Sanford earning less then 80% of the GOP vote, with 76%. This is in stark comparison to Busch, who takes in 89% of the Democratic vote and 55% of the independent vote.

The question which remains is whether Sanford can rally the base around his candidacy, blemishes from his past and all. Sanford himself has been trying to turn the negative into a positive. When asked about his 2009 fall from grace he confronted the issue head on,

"My faults are out and they are exposed," Sanford said. "But all I can say is that I have learned mightily from every one of those mistakes."

However Sanford’s opponents in the Republican primary seemed reluctant to attack his past, despite the fact that it is his biggest liability. Bostic would simply say, "A compromised candidate is not what we need," during a debate with Sanford. To this attack Sanford would retort, "While my skeletons are certainly out there, they’re out there." Bostic did not directly mention Sanford’s affair, disappearance, censure, or facing largest ethics fine in South Carolina history.

While Bostic may have kept his powder dry, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has little reason to hold back. This election represent a rare chance to strike out on the offensive in South Carolina as the seat could potentially be winnable. Busch has incredible fundraising potential with her celebrity brother, Stephen Colbert, and recently won the powerful endorsement of House Minority Whip James Clyburn. Given that it is unlikely that the seat will be this vulnerable in the near future, there is no reason for Democratic groups to hold back in their criticism of Sanford’s past if polling supports such tactics.

But Sanford is a canny political operator to have made it this far. With the right strategy and popular surrogates to bulk up his favorability, Sanford could win this race easily. One effective surrogate would be Jenny Sanford, who has a 55%/18% overall favorability rating and enjoys similar numbers among Republicans, Democrats, and independents. Time will tell however if she is ready to put aside his past along with the rest of the electorate.