Republican Mark Sanford won South Carolina's congressional special election Tuesday, but the results may not conclude the drama of a disgraced former governor on the outs with his own party.
Sanford's quest for public and political redemption after an extramarital affair succeeded with voters Tuesday, who returned him to a congressional seat he left in 2001. Sanford will fill the seat vacated when Rep. Tim Scott was appointed to the U.S. Senate in January.
On Thursday, however, Sanford will appear in a televised court hearing to answer a charge of trespassing from his former wife. Then he'll head to Washington, where he made few friends during his previous three terms in office bucking the Republican leadership.
Sanford defeated Elizabeth Colbert Busch, despite her backing by national Democratic organizations and fundraising help from her brother, comedian Stephen Colbert.
The victory in what had been seen as a tight race means the district, centered on Charleston, "is a safe Republican district ... and Democrats have not a lot of hope going forward," says political scientist Danielle Vinson of Furman University in Greenville, S.C.
"I don't see him having a lot of trouble if he can just shut his mouth about his private life and stop making an enemy of his ex-wife." If he can't, Vinson says, "the frustration with being a national punch line is pretty high in that district."
Sanford won nomination for the special election over a field of 16 Republicans, so there is no lack of potential primary challengers in 2014 should he continue to make embarrassing headlines.
During his previous terms in Congress, Sanford stuck to his fiscal hawk positions even when he clashed with Republican leaders.
"I don't suspect he'll be any better a colleague than he was 15 years ago," said Mark Tompkins, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina. "He doesn't change those spots, but on the other hand, he'll vote for Republican leadership. The election ... really does get him on the path to overcoming his current liabilities. And that's a big deal."
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, congratulated Sanford on Twitter on Tuesday night on his victory, and Republicans said it proved the unpopularity of national Democrats.
Sanford was late-night-comic fodder in 2009 when he told staff he was hiking the Appalachian Trail and instead headed to Argentina to visit his mistress.
He paid a $70,000 ethics fine for spending public money on personal travel. He is now divorced and engaged to his Argentine girlfriend.
"The House Republican caucus has added yet another ethically challenged embarrassment who will be an albatross around the neck of every Republican forced to answer for Mark Sanford's embarrassing and reckless behavior," said House Majority PAC Executive Director Alixandria Lapp.
The PAC backed Colbert Busch with $450,000 in ad spending.
Rep. Steve Israel of New York, who runs the House Democratic campaign effort, said "House Republicans' outreach to women voters now has Mark Sanford as the face."
Democrats "laid siege" to the district because Charleston County, one of five in the district, voted for Obama, says county GOP Chair Joe Bustos. Sanford's win, "is not a green light that future elections can be taken for granted at all."
Sanford was initially favored to win the special election when he prevailed in the primary, but revelations that his ex-wife had filed a complaint alleging he trespassed at her home brought him a wave of bad publicity. The national Republican House campaign operation pulled its support, and polls suddenly showed Colbert Busch ahead by 9 percentage points before Sanford closed the gap.
Sanford campaigned with a cardboard cutout of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and tried to tie Colbert Busch tightly to national Democrats. In the final week of the campaign, South Carolina's two senators endorsed him and Gov. Nikki Haley appeared at a fundraiser on his behalf. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a Tea Party favorite, also endorsed Sanford.
By Martha T. Moore, USA TODAY
USA TODAY / Gannett