The Campaign Spot

Mark Sanford, Now Running for Congress

Over on the home page, I have former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford’s first interview as candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives.

In the summer of 2009, the concept of Sanford attempting a political comeback by running for Congress.seemed laughable. His image changed overnight from perhaps the staunchest fiscal conservative among the nation’s governors to a national laughingstock when it was revealed that he had departed the state to fly to Argentina to meet with his mistress. Sanford’s mess was exacerbated by a plethora of embarrassing details — his bizarre cover story of “hiking the Appalachian trail,” his public declaration that the Argentinian woman was his “soul mate,” and the sight of the governor’s soon-to-be ex-wife and children moving out of the governor’s mansion.

But after the scandal revelation, things didn’t turn out quite so bad for Sanford. He managed to avoid impeachment; a state legislative ad hoc committee voted to censure but not impeach him. His favored successor, Governor Nikki Haley, scored an upset win in a hard-fought GOP gubernatorial primary and went on to win the general election in 2010. In 2012, he got engaged to the woman in Argentina, Maria Belen Chapur, and Sanford says their wedding is slated for late summer.

Now Sanford is preparing his political comeback in the district recently represented by Representative Tim Scott. Haley appointed Scott to replace Senator Jim DeMint. And as surprising as it may seem, Sanford has several advantages in the coming race.

The field for the upcoming GOP House primary promises to be crowded, with several families who are prominent in state and national politics represented: State representative Harry “Chip” Limehouse III, son of longtime state transportation head Harry “Buck” Limehouse, and Robert “Teddy” Turner IV, son of mogul Ted Turner. State representative Andy Patrick is also running, and throw in former state senator John Kuhn.

South Carolina’s first congressional district takes in all or part of Beaufort, Berkeley, Charleston, Colleton, and Dorchester counties, and is a heavily Republican district. In 2012, Scott won, 62 percent to 33 percent.

With only ten weeks to the primary and twelve weeks to a runoff, the race is best considered a sprint rather than a marathon; candidates will have little time to build up name recognition. As the best-known candidate, with a decent number of South Carolina Republicans still feeling relatively positive about him — a December statewide survey from Public Policy Polling put Sanford with a 39 percent favorable rating and a 44 percent unfavorable rating among Republicans — Sanford is quite likely to get one of the largest slices of a much-divided GOP electorate.

Sanford told me his own polling of the district, conducted in recent days, found him with a higher favorable rating than unfavorable rating.

The coming weeks are certain to see the national political focus upon the debt ceiling — a topic that Sanford fans believe helps strengthen the argument for their man, as Sanford’s unpopularity was driven by his personal failings, not his political stances or policies. And if South Carolinians are bothered by runaway debt and spending in the coming months, Sanford will have a solid record to showcase.

Here’s how the Cato Institute summarized Sanford’s reign, awarding him one of only four “A” ratings they gave in 2010:

Mark Sanford of South Carolina has been a staunch supporter of spending restraint and pro-growth tax reforms. In 2005, he cut the top income tax rate for small businesses from 7 percent to 5 percent, and in 2007 he signed into law sales and income tax cuts. Sanford has proposed replacing the state’s income tax with a flat tax, and he has urged legislators to adopt a legal cap on the state’s budget growth. He has also proposed phasing out the state’s corporate income tax. On spending, Sanford’s budgets have been very frugal. In fiscal 2010, South Carolina’s general fund spending was expected to be slightly less than spending in Sanford’s first year in office, fiscal 2003.

Sanford might have been more effective at getting proposed reforms passed if he hadn’t made political and personal mistakes, but he gets a lot of credit for trying to cut government and make the state’s tax code more competitive.

He has also a flair for the theatrical; in 2004, after the Republican-led state house of representatives overrode Sanford’s budget vetoes, Sanford brought live pigs into the house chamber as a visual protest against “pork projects.”

But he still has that glaring scandal of a few years back to overcome. Sanford spoke at great length when asked, “What would you say to voters who are troubled by the events of 2009?” Clearly, his opponents will want his candidacy to be defined by that, while he will hope they focus on his stances and what he could do in Congress.


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