Politics & Policy

Sanford Agonistes

The former South Carolina governor will probably win a House seat.

‘Mark Sanford Gets Resurrected” — it’s the perfect headline for Easter Week. Sanford, the South Carolina congressman-turned-governor who fell from grace (and from office) when he surreptitiously slipped off to Argentina to meet a lover, is back. Polls seem to indicate that he’ll coast to victory in a runoff against Curtis Bostic to fill the House seat Tim Scott vacated when he was appointed to the Senate.

Though Bostic has positioned himself as far to the right as possible — the URL for his campaign website is StopSpending.com, and Rick Santorum recently stumped for him — Sanford has touted his experience in the capitol and the statehouse to no small effect. He won the primary with 37 percent of the vote, almost three times the support Bostic garnered. Things are good in Sanford World, and they seem to be getting better. Public Policy Polling recently gave Sanford 53 percent of the vote to Bostic’s 40.

Not everyone is surprised. “He’s a professional politician,” says Katon Dawson, a national Republican consultant and former chairman of the state’s party. “He’s good at this.”

To be sure, it’s still premature to say Sanford has the victory locked up. Insiders estimate that only 25,000 to 35,000 people will vote, which makes predictions little more than an educated guessing game. Plus, Bostic’s supporters are devoted — in particular homeschoolers, seeing as Bostic is himself a homeschooling father of five. At least one homeschool-activism group, Generation Joshua, is coordinating a small last-minute get-out-the-vote push.

But Sanford probably woke up this morning feeling more confident than Bostic. Sanford’s main advantage seems to be that he’s a proven quantity with a long record to run on. And although Bostic has drawn endorsements from many out-of-state conservative leaders, six of the beaten primary contenders have endorsed the former governor.

One of those contenders, Jonathan Rath Hoffman, says that Sanford’s past might not be the Achilles’s heel that Democrats are hoping for. “The good thing about Mark Sanford is, right now, you know what you’re getting,” he says. “And I think that’s really helped him, because people know who he is, they know every detail of his past and where he’s been and what he’s been through and what he stands for. And for the most part, people are willing to forgive.”

And former Sanford insiders think that confidence is warranted. I spoke with a number of his former congressional staffers — he served three terms, from 1995 to 2001 — and they all seemed devoted and loyal to their former boss. True, not everyone who worked for him is a fan, and not everyone I contacted called me back, but the people I spoke with painted a fairly consistent picture of Representative Sanford: a serious, no-nonsense, hard-working politician who was more interested in voting his principles than in kowtowing to leadership.

His staffers say they were surprised by his Argentinian dalliance, since his time in D.C. was characterized by a near-monastic lifestyle; Sanford followed a rigid schedule dominated by work and exercise, and spent the rest of his little free time with male friends (especially then-representative Lindsey Graham and Steve Largent). “He slept in his office, showered in the members’ gym,” says one former staffer. “He went to some receptions — I mean it was probably a lot for the free food, because he was so cheap.”

Staffers say that living out of his Hill office would have made it particularly difficult (though not impossible) to keep extracurricular activities under wraps — especially since many of his staffers worked late. “I certainly wouldn’t call Mark a lighthearted guy,” says one former staffer. “When you were at work, you were there to work. It was serious.”

But that didn’t curtail many staffers’ dedication. “He is a personality that inspires loyalty,” one says. “I mean, it was kind of an us-against-the-world thing then. He was the guy along with Ron Paul voting no.”

A few former staffers say that he expected his aides to scrutinize every vote and debate whether or not policies fit his governing philosophy. One staffer took that method to its logical conclusion, inviting lobbyists from opposite sides of an issue to come to the same meetings — unbeknownst to them — and have impromptu debates about how the congressman should vote. Once, for example, the staffer invited the congressman to catch the end of a debate between two lobbyists over telecommunications policy. Sanford thought the unconventional approach was clever, the staffer says.  

If most observers’ predictions are borne out today, Sanford will be within spitting distance of his old digs on Capitol Hill. Regardless of tomorrow’s outcome, the race for Tim Scott’s old seat should make for great political theater. “It’ll be fun,” Dawson says. “Painful, but fun.”

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


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