Mark Sanford’s long road to redemption leads to Tuesday polls

Chris Moody
Political Reporter
The Ticket

CHARLESTON, S.C.—With a saga like Mark Sanford's, it is difficult to determine where to begin.

If you're just now joining us for Sanford's long road to redemption tour, let's start at the beginning and warp-speed to now.

Sanford was once the popular Republican governor of South Carolina who in 2009 mysteriously disappeared from the state to rendezvous with an Argentine mistress. Sanford remained the state's chief executive even after the affair was made public. He ultimately pledged his love for the Argentine woman, divorced his wife, served out his term and retreated to a remote family farm in South Carolina. He emerged back into public life last year by announcing that he would run for the congressional seat that opened up after Tim Scott was appointed to the U.S. Senate. After defeating 15 other Republican contenders in a primary earlier this spring, Sanford became the party nominee and began campaigning against Democratic businesswoman Elizabeth Colbert Busch, none other than the sister of the famous comedian Stephen Colbert.

You really couldn't make up a better plotline if you tried.

With the election in the state's 1st Congressional District this Tuesday, Sanford and Colbert Busch are locked in what polls show is a nail-biter of a race. Both candidates are campaigning furiously—Sanford is planning to appear at 11 events and Colbert Busch is making five stops throughout the district on Monday—to get their supporters out to the polls.

The District

The region where Sanford and Colbert Busch are battling has been solidly Republican for three decades, but the area doesn't perfectly fit the stereotype of a red Southern congressional district. In this part of the state, it's not all just about Jesus and AR-15s.

There's a saying in South Carolina that if you're from the Upstate, they ask what church you attend; if you're from the Midlands, they ask what corporation you work for; and if you're from Charleston—the Lowcountry —they ask what you want to drink. Voters here are generally conservative, but with an emphasis on the fiscal, not the social issues. The district has a pragmatic, leave-me-alone streak running straight through its heart.

With this in mind, the election should have easily gone to Sanford. But his questionable history leaves a massive opening for someone like Colbert Busch, who has worked hard to run as a self declared "fiscally conservative" Democrat who is not afraid to criticize President Barack Obama for his budget proposal or his landmark piece of legislation, the 2010 federal health care law.

The Players

While traveling through the district, the candidates have adopted vastly different approaches to campaigning. Sanford, who travels with only an aide or two, appears comfortable in his own skin on the trail. His face-to-face interactions are intensely personal and focused, at times disarmingly so, a sign that he has mastered retail politicking after years of public service.

Colbert Busch is new to politics, and still seems to be learning the ropes. Her answers to policy questions can, at times, come across as rehearsed and cautious. While pressed by reporters in Charleston on Sunday on whether she would vote with Republicans to repeal Obama's federal health care law, for instance, Colbert Busch didn't rule it out. "I have to see the bill," she said. "Let's get elected on May 7, and let's go from there. When they bring it to the desk, we'll go from there." (A campaign aide later clarified that Colbert Busch wanted to work to fix the health care law, but would not vote to repeal it outright.)

By many outward appearances, however, Colbert Busch comes across as the incumbent: While Sanford embraces a lone wolf style on the trail, she has a professionally painted tour bus and a pack of campaign aides follows her wherever she goes. With support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a national donor base and other outside groups, her television and radio ads dominate the airwaves. Her messaging strategy is clean and streamlined, while Sanford's is raw and all over the map.

Sanford's official campaign banners, which appear coincidentally similar to the Argentine flag, dot the highways throughout the district, but they are overshadowed by wooden signs made by Sanford supporters that look like they were written by a Chick-fil-A cow who finally learned to spell.

While Sanford isn't afraid to be himself, his approach can certainly appear unorthodox. In an attempt to associate Colbert Busch with the liberal agenda of national Democrats, Sanford "debated" a life-sized cutout of California Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi last month, a move that got him plenty of attention, but left many perplexed.

South Carolina Republicans know that candidate Sanford is risky, but they have embraced his strategy. They are glad he's making the race about national Democrats, not about Sanford and Colbert Busch.

"I thought it was smart because it reminds us what's at stake," said South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham when asked about Sanford debating a lifeless object bearing the likeness of the House minority leader. "If it's a personality contest, we could be in trouble. If it's about the direction of the country, who controls the House, I think he'll win."

Democrats, meanwhile, are fed up with Sanford. "He's sophomoric, in everything he does," said South Carolina Democratic Rep. James Clyburn, who appeared with Colbert Busch at a press conference in Charleston on Sunday.

The Jenny Factor

Sanford is one of those few politicians who has never lost an election.

But there's one big fat caveat. For every race he's won, Sanford has relied on Jenny Sanford—now his ex-wife—for vital parts of the effort. Jenny Sanford not only helped coordinate and organize campaign efforts, her background as an investment banker and heiress helped him tap into a massive donor network.

When he launched his candidacy this time, Sanford audaciously asked his scorned ex-wife to help him again. She declined.

Republicans who have worked with Sanford said Jenny's absence has been felt on the campaign trail.

"I think Mark would be the first to tell you that she has been a tremendous part of his past successes in races, so yeah, I think it would be nice to have that winning component of the team on board again," said South Carolina State Sen. Tom Davis, Sanford's former chief of staff and a friend of more than 30 years. "You're talking about somebody who's smart as hell. When you combine all those assets, certainly you'd want her as part of your team."

Also sitting out this race is the National Republican Congressional Committee, which announced in April that it would not spend money on television ads to support him, a decision that has frustrated state-based activists and volunteers who are working around the clock to keep the seat Republican.

"I really think it was short-sighted on behalf of the NRCC to make that decision," Davis said. "There's a lot of anger about that and a strong sense of betrayal."

Declining to offer Sanford air support could prove to be a win-win for the House GOP fundraising group. If he loses, it will save face for the group. The NRCC could say it knew all along that it would be better to position its resources elsewhere and begin raising money to defeat Colbert Busch, who would be up for re-election as early as November 2014. As a traditionally red district, there's a good chance Republicans could win the seat back anyway, and there's little chance Colbert Busch would be able to cause Republicans much damage as a lawmaker during her restricted first term. If Sanford wins, however, the NRCC can fall back on its public defense for not supporting him in the first place: That he didn't "need' its help.

The air war isn't Sanford's specialty anyway. He's an old-fashioned retail politician who seems to live for the next handshake. He also has the backing of hundreds of South Carolina activists who have worked tirelessly over the past several weeks to send him back to Washington.

But there's a lesser known side to Sanford. While he presents himself as an extroverted charmer, he's also an introspective person who says he needs time alone to reflect and recharge.

"I need yin and yang," he told Yahoo News after an afternoon of flesh pressing in Beaufort.

While he was working on the farm in the aftermath of the Argentine scandal, Sanford read self-help and motivational books. The experience rejuvenated him, he said, and prepared him for his public comeback.

Since the first day of his freshman year of college, Sanford has kept a personal journal, one that he says he still writes in every day.

Win or lose, Wednesday morning's entry will surely be a memorable one.