Politics & Policy

Mark Sanford’s Fall from Grace

Mark Sanford
For the GOP establishment, the fiancée’s surprise appearance was the last straw.

Curtis Bostic doesn’t want you to vote for Mark Sanford. Now, he doesn’t want you to vote against Mark Sanford either, don’t get him wrong. Bostic, the primary GOP challenger who lost to the disgraced former governor, wants to keep his hands clean when it comes to the special election to fill South Carolina’s first congressional seat. And he’s not the only one.

#ad#The news broke on Tuesday, in court documents leaked to the AP, that Sanford will be in court two days after the special election because he trespassed in his ex-wife’s house to watch the Super Bowl with his son. So the National Republican Congressional Committee called it a day, announcing on April 17 that Mark Sanford seems to be doing just fine on his own and won’t be receiving any of their financial support. And Roll Call reported that the Club for Growth and the Republican super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund have no plans to help fund Sanford, either.

No matter how you look at, that’s not good news for Sanford, and we haven’t even gotten to a recent PPP poll that gave Elizabeth Colbert Busch a slight lead over the embattled former governor. Her lead was within the margin of error, but in a district as red as South Carolina’s first, that’s . . . problematic.

But it didn’t have to be this way. Two GOP insiders speculated that the toxic details on the hearing might have stayed under wraps if not for the surprise appearance of Sanford’s fiancée, Maria Belén Chapur, at his victory party. Two of Sanford’s four sons were also at the rally, and it was the first time the oldest, 17-year-old Bolton, had ever been in the presence of Chapur. Their mother, Jenny Sanford, told the Washington Post that “both boys were quite upset and visibly so.”

“Anybody who thinks this story would’ve happened if Jenny hadn’t been hurt on election night is kidding himself,” says a South Carolina politico. “This trespassing story would not be out there if Jenny had not been embarrassed on election night. I believe that.” 

A former executive director of the South Carolina GOP, who also asked not to be named, echoed that sentiment. “I guaran-damn-tee you she did that,” he says, referring to the release of the court documents. “I’m convinced of it. And I don’t blame her.”

“She’s done a very good job of crafting an image that she is not a political operative or a political person,” he adds. “She’s been very, very clever in doing that. But don’t make any mistakes. She is as much a political operative, and thinks like a political operative, as the best of us.”

On top of this, the absence of Jenny Sanford’s political instincts has been a loss for her ex-husband’s latest campaign. “He’s not clever like she is,” says the former GOP director. “She’s clever.”

Chris Drummond, a South Carolina consultant who worked as Sanford’s communications director during his first gubernatorial term, argues that the former governor put a high premium on loyalty from his staffers. He always knew Jenny had his back, according to Drummond, and sometimes saw her as more of a campaign manager than a wife. One person described her as “the muscle behind the hustle, if you will.” Without said muscle, the comeback campaign is faltering.

Whatever the motives behind the leak, things are going south in Mark Sanford Land. And many South Carolina Republicans don’t seem too worried about that. Conventional wisdom holds that House Republicans can afford to lose the seat — there’s not a single important vote in recent years that has been decided by one House vote — and they could easily take out Colbert Busch in 2014 if it comes to that.

As a result, many Republican leaders are sitting on their hands, unruffled at the idea of a Sanford loss.

“I will not endorse him,” Bostic says. “I will neither advance his campaign nor take from his campaign. I think there are lots of folks in Republican leadership who are taking that approach. They’re not actively marketing on his behalf, but they’re not doing anything to detract, and that’s where I want to be. [Sanford] knows how to win campaigns.”

Plus, if Sanford loses, the GOP might have a shot at sending someone to Washington who’s less likely to go on field trips in pursuit of overseas love.

“They want to do this race again next year,” said a long-time Republican consultant in South Carolina. He continues: “She [Colbert Busch] can’t keep the seat. Why not let Sanford go down and do this for real again next year?”

South Carolina Republicans aren’t hurting for a bench, either. State senators Tom Davis and Paul Thurmond are both possible candidates, and Bostic says he might be interested in running for the seat again in 2014. It’s hard to imagine anyone less competitive than Sanford.

“Nobody knew who Bostic was, and they were voting for him,” says the consultant. “Sanford was looking at 100 percent name ID, and 25 percent of the electorate in the Republican primary wasn’t going to vote for him, no matter what.”

But there’s no consensus that Sanford’s extracurricular activities will make enough Republicans stay home. And it’s important to remember, as Drummond notes, that Newt Gingrich won the Palmetto State primary in 2012.

“Special elections — Republicans don’t lose many in South Carolina,” says Katon Dawson, a national Republican consultant and former chair of the state GOP. “Mark Sanford is the only one who possibly could lose.”

And he might even be able to spin the NRCC’s rejection to his favor. “Mark Sanford will probably make that a positive,” says Dawson. “People here like their congressmen, they like their senators, but they hate Washington.”

“Mark’s a good politician — he knows how to win a race, knows how to raise money,” Dawson adds. “He just doesn’t know how to conduct a divorce. His problem is he has a Ph.D. in campaigns and elections, and he gets an F in how to conduct a divorce and a marriage.”

Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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