In a state known for its vibrant, controversy-soaked political culture, former Gov. Mark Sanford stands out as one of its most colorful characters. He had his eyes set on the White House before his path to the summit of national politics took a sharp detour along the "Appalachian Trail," in a scandal more befitting a daytime soap opera.
Now, 3½ years later, he’s set to re-enter the fray.
Sanford will announce officially on Wednesday his candidacy for the House of Representatives, a Sanford aide confirmed to RCP. He hopes to replace newly appointed Sen. Tim Scott in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District.
Sanford previously held the seat from 1995 to 2001 before running for governor successfully in 2002.
During the third year of his second term in the governor’s mansion, his upward political trajectory veered sharply downward after he disappeared from public view for almost a week, telling his staff that he had gone hiking alone on the Appalachian Trail. In fact, he wasn’t on the trail, and he wasn’t alone: Sanford was caught by a reporter returning from a clandestine trip to Argentina with his mistress, to whom he later became engaged.
He ultimately was censured by the state legislature but served out his term, succeeded in 2011 by current Gov. Nikki Haley.
His ex-wife, Jenny Sanford, announced on Monday that she would not run for the 1st District seat -- a potential candidacy that she had been rumored to be considering.
The 2009 melodrama surrounding his affair with Maria Belen Chapur -- whom Sanford said was his “soul mate” -- is certain to be a major narrative surrounding his House campaign, despite his track record as a once-popular governor who had been regarded as a likely top-tier 2012 Republican presidential candidate.
“He’s going to have to answer the question about the infidelity and being out of state and not being forthcoming about where he was,” said South Carolina state Sen. Tom Davis, Sanford’s former chief of staff and longtime friend, who is supporting his former boss in the special election. “It’s a legitimate question, and voters have the right to ask that question. I think voters will judge Mark based on his answer. It’s certainly going to come up, and it’s certainly going to be an issue.”
Asked in an interview with The National Review on Wednesday what he would say to voters who were troubled by his actions, Sanford said that people needed to “look under the hood” and consider “a larger philosophical question.”
“In life, we’re all going to make mistakes -- we’re all going to come up short. The key is, how do you get back up, and how do you learn from those mistakes?” he said. “But I think that the bigger issue is, don’t judge any one person by their best day; don’t judge them by their worst day. Look at the totality, the whole of their life, and make judgments accordingly.”
Sanford told the National Review that he and Chapur are still engaged: “I’m going to marry her, it’s just that simple.”
The Republican primary for the special election in the coastal 1st District is set for March 19. If no candidate hits the 50 percent threshold, a runoff election between the top two vote-getters on April 2 will determine who will go on to the general election on May 7.
Sanford has near-universal name recognition among voters in the district and is particularly well-known in the heavily populated area surrounding Charleston, where he long resided.
He also spent part of his early life and retains property in Beaufort County in the region surrounding Hilton Head, where special election turnout among the older-skewing primary electorate is expected to be high.
Before the “Appalachian Trail” episode, Sanford built a reputation as a no-nonsense, budget-cutting fiscal hawk and was the first governor to reject a portion of the stimulus funds that had been earmarked to the state in 2009.
Charleston-based Republican political consultant Jim Dyke said that Sanford will be the clear favorite in the special election, despite the questions surrounding his personal life.
“It’s hard to tell which one of these other guys is going to catch fire,” Dyke said of the other GOP candidates in the race. “I feel like the saga is past tense and people are going to be extremely interested in how we deal with debt, deficit, spending, guns. Those are going to be the primary points of discussion, and I think to the degree that Gov. Sanford explains to people out of the gate what his current status is, I’m not sure what else there is to talk about.”
Sanford’s entry into the race may discourage some fence-sitters from challenging him, but there will nonetheless be a multi-candidate field of GOP contenders. Among them is former South Carolina Treasurer Thomas Ravenel, who resigned that position in 2007 after being indicted on federal cocaine distribution charges and was later sentenced to 10 months in prison after pleading guilty.
Other already-declared candidates include South Carolina state Sen. Larry Grooms and state Rep. Chip Limehouse, both of whom are hanging their hopes on winning a two-candidate run-off election against Sanford -- under the assumption that negative impressions of the former governor will be too much for him to overcome in that scenario.
“This is a wide-open primary campaign, and Sen. Grooms has a 15-year record of being a strong, unapologetic conservative in the state Senate,” said Grooms’ campaign manager, Andrew Boucher.
Teddy Turner, the son of CNN founder Ted Turner, also has declared his intention to enter the race and is running in part on the basis of his business background and current position as a high school economics teacher in the state.