CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's quest for political redemption will be decided Tuesday, as one of the more unusual political campaigns in a state known for rough-and-tumble politics draws to a close.
He faces Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of political satirist Stephen Colbert, in Tuesday's special election for the 1st District congressional seat.
Sanford, once mentioned as a potential GOP presidential contender, saw his political career disintegrate four years ago when he disappeared for five days, telling his staff he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. He returned to admit he had been in Argentina with his mistress — a woman to whom he is now engaged.
Sanford later paid a $70,000 ethics fine, the largest in state history, for using public money to fly for personal purposes. His wife, Jenny, divorced him.
Now, Sanford is trying to stage a political comeback by winning the seat he held for three terms in the 1990s when the conservative coastal district had a somewhat different configuration.
Sanford has already survived a 16-way GOP primary where he faced several sitting state lawmakers and Teddy Turner, the son of media magnate Ted Turner. He also won the primary runoff. Colbert Busch defeated perennial candidate Ben Frasier with 96 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary.
Colbert Busch, 58, picked up the endorsement of The Post and Courier over the weekend, with the Charleston newspaper calling her "a welcome tonic" for those who suffer from what the editors called "Sanford Fatigue — a malady caused by overexposure to all of the cringe-worthy details of his 2009 disgrace as governor, his ongoing efforts for redemption via the political process, his resurgent personal problems, etc."
Green Party candidate Eugene Platt also is running against Sanford in the district, which looks reliably Republican on paper.
But three weeks before the special election, news surfaced that Sanford's ex-wife had filed a court complaint alleging he was in her house without permission in violation of their divorce decree. Sanford must appear in court Thursday.
Sanford said he tried to get in touch with his ex-wife and was in the house so his youngest son would not have to watch the Super Bowl alone.
The revelation of the trespassing accusation prompted the National Republican Congressional Committee to pull its support from the campaign. The group, which had conducted polling and provided other resources for the campaign, said it wouldn't provide more money or pay for television advertising because officials worried he would have trouble making inroads with women voters.
Even so, Sanford picked up the endorsement of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a tea party favorite and is well-known in the district.
Gibbs Knotts, chairman of the Political Science Department at the College of Charleston, said the key for both campaigns is getting their voters to the polls. Turnout is expected to be light.
"It's going to be a close election" he said. "It will depend on turnout. I'm sort of wondering if the moderates are going to hold their noses and vote for Sanford because he ultimately lines up with their policies."
Sanford, who turns 53 later this month, has campaigned this time just as he has during much of his two-decade political career — on the urgent need to rein in government spending and balance the budget.
Colbert Busch has focused on her business experience in creating jobs. However, she changed course last week after initially refusing to make Sanford's past an issue, reminding voters during a televised debate that Sanford used taxpayer money to leave the state for personal reasons.
"If Sanford wins, it's a story about the fundamentals. This is a district that was designed to be a Republican District, and they will have sent another Republican to Congress," Knotts said.
If Colbert Busch wins, he said, "it's a referendum on Sanford's past — just too much baggage, and the trespassing allegations got him talking about his past when Sanford is best when he is talking about size of government and the budget deficit."