‘Excuse me, do you know what’s going on here that it’s so crowded?”
I’m walking through a Publix parking lot in Mount Pleasant, S.C., to the Liberty Tap Room, and it’s 7:55 p.m. on Tuesday, May 7 — Election Day in the state’s first congressional district. A middle-aged woman is leaning out of her Suburban, frowning in the direction of the bar, trying to ascertain the reason for the plethora of TV news trucks and camera equipment.
“It’s Mark Sanford’s victory party,” I tell her.
She gapes at me, confused.
“Did he win?”
Less than an hour later, the AP declares that the answer to that question is yes — and not just a yes, but a definite yes, by nine points, despite being outspent 4–1 and abandoned for all practical purposes by the national fundraising arm of his party. There will be lots of analysis in the days to come about what this election means, but one thing isn’t up for debate: Mark Sanford knows how to campaign, and his win here is due at least in part to his tireless canvassing and cheerful willingness to ask for the vote of anyone who would listen to him.
When he arrived at the victory party, Sanford was in full-on retail-politics mode. I followed the former governor on the campaign trail the day before the election and wrote about his perpetual handshaking and small-talking. Winning the election doesn’t seem to have tempered his pace. When he arrives at the party, he laps around the front of the building (which, a server tells me, is more crowded than it’s ever been), posing for pictures and hugging supporters.
Two things are different from the day before, though: First, he’s wearing a suit instead of stained khakis and busted-up shoes, and actually looks like someone who might belong in the halls of the Capitol. And second, he’s got his oldest son, Marshall, in tow. He looks around for his son every minute or two — when he loses sight of him, he asks the nearest staffer, “Where’d Marshall go?” and whenever he gets a chance, he introduces the 20-year-old to supporters who haven’t met him.
Mark Sanford’s sister, Sarah Sanford Rauch, isn’t far behind. She’s one of his veteran campaign volunteers, and she’s outspoken about her support for her embattled brother. I ask her how she feels.
“Exhausted,” she tells me. “It’s the toughest race I’ve ever been in. I’ve helped out on a bunch of races, but this is the toughest, by far.”
“You wake up every morning and you look at the newspaper and you wait to see what anvil is getting dropped on your head each day,” she adds.
I ask if the win is going to be good for their family, and she hesitates.
“I think so,” she replies after a moment. “Because we know Mark is where he needs to be.”
By the time Sanford makes it into the main room where volunteers, supporters, and members of the local and national press have congregated, the building is packed and unpleasantly stuffy in the Carolina humidity. There’s a cheer when he comes in, and people start to chant, “Let’s go, Mark! Let’s go, Mark!”
The cameramen are on risers, but Sanford doesn’t have a stage, so he steps up onto a big industrial kitchen pan that gives him an extra six inches or so, and launches into his acceptance speech. And that’s when I look over and realize that his fiancée, María Belén Chapur, is standing right beside me. She’s wearing a black cocktail dress and heels, and she has bright red nail polish. And she’s beaming.