The lessons of Mark Sanford's comeback victory

South Carolina voters, it seems, are almost French in their willingness to forgive an extramarital affair

Mark Sanford
(Image credit: AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)

Voters in South Carolina's 1st congressional district sent former Gov. Mark Sanford (R) to Congress on Tuesday, giving him a 54 percent to 45 percent win over political newcomer Elizabeth Colbert Busch (D). The come-from-behind win capped an amazing comeback for Sanford, whose political career once seemed ruined due to his high-profile extramarital affair and its long trail of embarrassments.

But "political victory has redemptive powers," says John Dickerson at Slate, and there are lots of reasons Sanford "now has a chance to write a new chapter in his personal history." Sanford is "well known as a committed fiscal hawk," a message Palmetto State voters want to send to Washington; his "gritty campaigning and over-the-top charm helped him recover" from an early deficit in the polls; and the solidly Republican voters couldn't stomach sending House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) an ally, no matter Colbert Busch's moderate stances. But there's no way of getting around the fact that proudly socially conservative South Carolinians "put fidelity to party over fidelity to fidelity."

South Carolina conservatives may still say a candidate's sins matter, but they aren't voting that way. In fact, if you weren't privy to the state's strong social conservative history, you could almost mistake South Carolinians for city folk — people who vote for experience, policy, and political leanings and show a sophisticate's relativism toward personal moral failings. These days, South Carolinians seem almost Parisian when they enter the voting booth. [Slate]

Dickerson isn't alone in wondering about South Carolina's social Frenchification:

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Of course, not everyone thinks South Carolina acting like France on sexual matters is a bad thing. "France — home of my absolute favorite foreign first lady, Carla Bruni — perfected the laissez-faire attitude toward the sex lives of its public leaders," says Meghan McCain at The Daily Beast. And stateside, we still hold our politicians to impossible sexual standards.

The GOP is struggling right now to find anyone who looks to be our next leader. Those who have been anointed so far have ended up falling completely short. Going forward, I suggest that the party concentrate less on what goes on in the bedroom and more on what is going on in policy.... Republicans — and Democrats — should forgive these private sins and move on. Life happens. People — especially politicians — make mistakes. [Daily Beast]

For all the talk of France and embracing hypocrisy — Sanford voted to impeach Bill Clinton for lying about adultery the last time he was in Congress — "it would be wrong to conclude that voters did not punish Mr. Sanford at all for his extramarital affair," says Nate Silver at The New York Times. "In fact, a reasonable number of voters did appear to hold it against him." Mitt Romney won the district by 18 points in a race Obama won nationally by 4 points, so South Carolina 01 is "about 22 percentage points more Republican than the country as a whole." If you look at it that way, and remember that Sanford won by just 9, then you see that Sanford's philandering cost him 13 points — the average toll for sex scandals, actually, but "not enough to flip the election result in such a conservative district."

One might argue that a 9-point loss in a deep-red district is a "moral victory" for Democrats, says Ed Morrissey at Hot Air. But Colbert Busch should probably have done better against "a damaged, weak candidate with few allies and a whole lot of his own party annoyed and chagrined to see him run for office again." She outspent Sanford by a lot, but Sanford "prevailed in nationalizing the race, in part because of that big fundraising boost for Colbert Busch." You can't draw many conclusions from special elections, which are quirky by nature, but the message South Carolina voters sent the Democrats is that "money can't buy love."

What this tells us about South Carolina's 1st district is actually pretty mundane, says Michael Tomasky at The Daily Beast. The district is conservative — just ask any liberal living in Charleston — and voters generally "care more about ideology than morality."

The vibe I invariably got from people was: Yeah, we're liberal, but it's hopeless, we're surrounded. When people feel like that as a general proposition, they're not going to go to the mat to elect a congresswoman. They're going to try to spend as little time as possible thinking about politics and as much as possible thinking about other things. Anyway, it's one of politics' oldest rules. He may be a creep (or crook or a**hole or whatever), but he's our creep.... Against all that history and emotion, Colbert-Busch actually did a pretty good job, and she would have a future if she lived in a quasi-normal state. [Daily Beast]

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.