News Column

How Mark Sanford Won the GOP Runoff

April 4, 2013

Gina Smith, The Island Packet (Hilton Head Island, S.C.)

Only in the Lowcountry.

That's what S.C. politicos are saying about former Gov. Mark Sanford's comeback Tuesday after he won the GOP congressional nomination only four years after the revelation of an extramarital affair seemed certain to end his career.

How did he do it? Here are five big reasons:

1. A custom-fit district

The Lowcountry, with its high number of retirees and transplants from other parts of the country, is not as socially conservative as the rest of red South Carolina.

"(In) no place other than the beautiful 1st Congressional District would this have been possible," said Chip Felkel, a Greenville-based GOP consultant who reports "a lot of eye-rolling" in the conservative Upstate following Sanford's win.

Add to population mix Sanford's experience representing the district in Congress for six years. That made him a known name with a trusted record among longtime residents.

Those voters wanted to talk about bringing an end to deficit spending, reducing debt and limiting government -- hallmarks of Sanford's time in Washington and Columbia.

"When you think about Mark Sanford, obviously you've got opinions on what happened at the end of his term as governor," said Luke Byars, a S.C. Republican strategist who has run races against Sanford in the past. "But when you think about him in terms of policy, in Congress, as governor, he's the guy who would hold out on the smallest appropriation, who would fight any type of new spending.

"It was legendary. And voters know him for it."

2. The competition

Sanford's track record was particularly striking in a crowded 16-way race, in which Republican candidates tripped over one another to prove they were the most fiscally conservative.

The effect was intensified by a special election with a condensed timeline.

"If you had had four other people in the primary and not 16, it might have been a different outcome," Felkel said. "But as it was, everybody found a little something they liked about different candidates and they divvied up the vote. That ultimately favored Sanford."

3. Jenny Sanford sat out

Sanford's ex-wife, Jenny Sanford, gave him a large gift by deciding not to run -- and not to speak against him.

A 2010 Winthrop University poll showed her to be a popular S.C. figure with almost 65 percent of Republicans having a favorable opinion of their then-first lady.

"I think she would have sucked all of the oxygen out of his campaign had she run," said Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop political scientist and pollster. "She is respected for her own fiscally conservative ideas and political chops, so she would have been taken very seriously by the political insiders. If she's just as capable and just as conservative, how many people would give the vote to the cheater over the woman he wronged? Especially if they were thinking he might have trouble against a female Democratic opponent, and she would have no such challenges."

Mark Sanford has said his first stop when considering a run was his ex-wife's house to make sure she had no plans to run.

Jenny Sanford, who wrote a best-selling book about her sometimes-trying marriage, has said her focus remains on her four sons, not public office, now or in the future.

4. A solid campaign, a solid message

That's not to take anything away from Mark Sanford's campaigning skill.

He reunited some members of his former teams -- including Jason Miller, a former campaign manager and deputy chief of staff -- to run the new campaign. He also successfully tapped an extensive network of supporters, taking special care in Charleston County, his home. It was there he delivered a decisive punch Tuesday to Curtis Bostic.

He also had the money to take his message to the airwaves. His campaign had more than $400,000 as of mid-March.

And he was ready to run.

"(Sanford) was prepared in the debates. He knew what he wanted the headline to be the next day and he didn't move off of it," said Walt Whetsell, a GOP strategist who ran Republican John Kuhn's unsuccessful congressional race. "He knows what he's doing."

5. Addressing the elephant in the room

Sanford started nearly all of his stump speeches with a few sentences about his belief in redemption, forgiveness and a "God of second chances."

By addressing the extramarital affair head-on, political observers say, the way was clear to discuss his strong point: fiscal issues.

It was an intentional effort, Whetsell said.

"If we're talking about the affair and forgiveness, then we're not talking about leaving the state unattended for nearly a week and ethics fines." Sanford disappeared from the state to visit his then-lover in Argentina and later paid a record $74,000 in ethics fines.

It didn't hurt that rivals weren't sure how to attack on the affair front.

Bostic made only veiled references to it, calling Sanford a "compromised candidate" and instead attempted to define his opponent as a "career politician."

Direct attacks probably would not have worked anyway, Byars said

"Ninety percent of the electorate already knew about it and had made up their mind on it. Anything another candidate said would have not changed their opinion on Mark Sanford. It may have changed their opinion on the other candidate," he said. "Usually, a negative attack like that blows up in your face."

It's an approach that political operatives say Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, who faces Sanford in the May 7 general election, should also avoid. The ballot will also include Green Party candidate Eugene Platt.

"I think she's better off if she runs a race based on who she is, not who Mark Sanford is. Because I think she's got a pretty good story," Felkel said of the well-liked Charleston businesswoman, who is the sister of Comedy Central comedian Stephen Colbert. "And what else is there to say about Mark in 2009 that hasn't already been said? You're not going to get new converts."

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Source: (c)2013 The Island Packet (Hilton Head, S.C.) Distributed by MCT Information Services


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