Did the GOP throw away a congressional seat by nominating Mark Sanford?

The scandal-tainted ex-South Carolina governor won his primary, but polls show Elizabeth Colbert Busch could snatch up what was once a safe Republican seat

Congressional hopeful Mark Sanford leaves the voting booth on April 2 after casting his ballot at his precinct in Charleston, S.C.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Bruce Smith)

Former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford took another step forward in his political comeback on Tuesday, trouncing his rival in a GOP congressional primary runoff. Now he'll face Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch in the May special election to fill the seat Sanford held before becoming governor. The district, which includes Charleston, traditionally votes Republican — GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney took 59 percent of the vote there in November. But Republicans, especially Christian conservatives, are worried that the memory of the extramarital affair that destroyed Sanford's marriage and derailed his political career could hand Democrats what should be a safe Republican seat.

And Republicans have plenty of reasons to be concerned, with polls showing a tight race. National Republicans are so worried, says Alex Isenstadt at Politico, that they're pouring cash into the race to keep Colbert Busch from pulling the seat out from under them. And "the affair that sent Sanford's political career off the rails only begins to describe his baggage."

Fellow GOP pols don't like him. Neither do female voters. His campaign is largely an exercise in seeking forgiveness for his transgressions four years ago — a defensive crouch that makes it tricky to take the fight to Colbert Busch, the sister of late-night comedian Stephen Colbert.

Sanford's liabilities could force outside groups to spend precious resources doing his dirty work — all to salvage a district that Mitt Romney won by 18 points. [Politico]

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But Sanford's lopsided primary win was pretty convincing. And some wonder if, in the internet age, his four-year-old scandal is already ancient history in the eyes of voters. After all, points out David Weigel at Slate, Maria Belen Chapur — who was Sanford's mistress when he visited her after lying to his staff and saying he was going hiking on the Appalachian Trail — is now his fiance.

Affairs are inherently sad; love and weddings are inherently pleasant. This is why the momentum for gay marriage has been impossible to stop while social conservatives hold tough on abortion and other issues, and why it wasn't bad for Sanford when his fiance Maria Chapur surprised him at his victory party. This is why only 14 months ago South Carolina conservatives gave their presidential primary vote to Newt Gingrich. The Sanford comeback story? It's been done. [Slate]

The consensus is that Colbert Busch has a solid chance to pick up the seat, but it's not just because of Sanford's baggage. His affair didn't come up in the primary campaign. Colbert Busch did react to Sanford's Tuesday victory by saying he "simply has the wrong values for our community," although the example she cited was his opposition to "commonsense measures like the Violence Against Women Act." Colbert Busch, however, has other things going for her, says Cameron Joseph at The Hill. Special elections are "notoriously unpredictable, low-turnout affairs," and the Democrat has done a good job so far winning over the people she hopes to represent.

Colbert Busch has run a campaign concentrating on her business career and community efforts. Running essentially unopposed, she was able to focus on burnishing her centrist credentials and raise money while Sanford had to worry about the GOP primary.

While most in the national audience know Colbert Busch best for her brother, she's long been involved in the Charleston community and polls show she's well-known and fairly well-liked. [The Hill]

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