The Mark Sanford Playbook: Four Ways to Rebound From a Sex Scandal

Elahe Izadi and Jordain Carney
National Journal

Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford officially announced his political comeback Wednesday, emerging from a two-year hibernation and from the humiliation of an all-too-public affair with an Argentine journalist and a fictitious vacation on the Appalachian Trail.  

For most politicians, such damaging personal indiscretions mean permanent political purgatory – think Anthony Weiner, who’s currently unemployed, or Eliot Spitzer, just ousted from Current TV – but Sanford is looking in surprisingly good shape to make a political comeback.  Running for his old congressional seat recently vacated by appointed GOP Sen. Tim Scott, he already looks like an early favorite.

So what’s Sanford’s secret? Here are his four time-tested rules to credibly make a comeback from a sex scandal.

Play to your strengths; be honest about your weaknesses.

Sanford is running in a solidly Republican district, so whoever goes on to win the March 19 primary will likely be the next representative. So how does one stand out from the pack in South Carolina? Tout your conservative credentials (and in Sanford’s case, remind voters why they elected him in the first place.) That’s what he did in the press release announcing his candidacy by mentioning “runaway government spending” and how he cut the deficit as governor.

In an e-mail to supporters, Sanford highlighted his congressional record, including his fiscal conservatism and the high ratings he had received from Citizens Against Government Waste and the National Taxpayers Union. He also noted being the first governor in the country to reject federal stimulus money.

But he didn't shy away from his past affair -- a signal of how he intends to handle it in the short campaign season -- writing he "failed miserably in my personal life.”

“While it remains important that you do so humbly and with the full acknowledgement of one’s imperfections, you have to take what you have learned and move again based on the voice inside and the urgings and encouragement of others,” he wrote.

Sanford also began apologizing before he left office, which may have helped his early return to politics. Republican Party Chairman Chad Connelly said that he did a lot of work before he left office, calling “every county chairman in the party and said, ‘You know, I’m sorry.’ ”

Connelly said that how successful Sanford is will likely depend on “how much he’s going to be able to change the narrative” away from his scandal and to issues like the economy, which are “Sanford’s wheelhouse.”

Then there’s the geography of where Sanford is running: the state's low country, which includes Charleston. It’s less socially conservative than other parts of the state, where voters may be more likely to forgive him for his moral failings than in parts of the state where evangelical voters hold greater sway.

It’s also largely the same district Sanford ran in when he served in the House, and that matters. “If anybody would forgive him for moral lapses, it would be them,” he says, adding, “They are the people who know him best.”

Make sure your ex-wife isn’t running.

Sanford faced such a prospect. His ex-wife, Jenny Sanford, had been mulling a run. But she declared on Monday that she wouldn’t jump into the race, telling the Associated Press that “my job as mom right now is much more important.”

Former South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson wasn’t surprised. He says the decision was “very consistent with who she is.... I just never saw Jenny taking that seriously.”

Mark Sanford didn’t make his run official until after his ex-wife made her non-run official. Now he doesn’t have to answer any questions on the possibility of a Sanford versus Sanford matchup.

But even with his ex-wife out of the race, he still faces a list of possible challengers including former state Sen. John Kuhn, businessman Keith Blandford; state Rep. Wendell Gilliard; state Rep. Chip Limehouse; state Rep. Andy Patrick; state Sen. Larry Grooms; former state Treasurer Thomas Ravenel and Teddy Turner, a high school economics teacher and son of billionaire Ted Turner. Think that’s a lot? More Republicans could still jump in -- the filing deadline isn’t until Jan. 28.

Raise big bucks.

Scandal or not, in order to win, any candidate needs to be able to raise money, and Sanford is a proven fundraiser. He built up strong fundraising networks during previous runs, and he’ll need them and in a crowded primary.

Sanford already holds a potential early fundraising advantage. He said he’d tap into some of the money leftover from his previous congressional and statewide runs. But he still could face some deep-pocketed opponents, like Turner.

Time is a critical advantage for Sanford: The primary is March 19, and the runoff is April 2. That’s a pretty short timeframe for a lesser-known challenger to pull in all tons of cash. Connelly says that other potential candidates have “a tall hill to climb” to catch up with Sanford on fundraising and name ID.

Stay out of the spotlight until you’re ready to run.

Patience is a virtue. Political junkies remember the painfully awkward press conference he held to confess his misdeeds. But time heals all wounds, and many voters are willing to forgive and forget.  Like a good ex, he gave voters space before trying to get back together. He didn’t become a cable TV pundit, start a nonprofit or float his name for other political gigs to keep his name in the news. It wasn’t until Scott’s appointment opened up this congressional seat that Sanford threw his name into the ring.