CHARLESTON, S.C.—“The comeback kid of South Carolina?" a TV reporter asks. "Is that? Do you like that?”
Mark Sanford is hemmed in by a media scrum at his victory party at an Irish pub in downtown Charleston. He's just won 37 percent of the vote in a 16-person Republican primary for an open South Carolina congressional seat, the same seat he held in the 1990s before becoming governor, before the Appalachian Trail, before a post-Clinton world where Americans don't seem to care much about what you do behind closed doors if you apologize, move on, and play to your base. Sanford captured more ballots in this special election—19, 812 votes—than were cast in the entire Democratic primary. (Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of Comedy Central satirist Stephen Colbert, won that contest handily.) Sanford will now compete in the GOP primary runoff, which will be held April 2.
In the glare of the TV cameras, Sanford blanches at the term comeback kid.
“You guys can come up with all your own definitions on these things,” Sanford says. “What I learned a long time ago is the media's gonna do what the media's gonna do.”
“This must feel like redemption,” the TV reporter says.
“It's been incredibly humbling … it's been a remarkable journey,” says Sanford.
It was four years ago when this quirky South Carolina governor's political career crashed and splattered all over a million TV screens in what's remembered as one of the most awkward press conferences ever. The tears. The meandering apologies and mentions of days crying in Argentina with a soul mate who was not his wife. The tug on his elbow from an aide when it finally became too much. Sanford, many believed, had aspirations for the White House. In the immediate aftermath he did not resign, nor was he impeached. But his wife left him, and he left the governor's office in obloquy. He was finished.
Then a strange twist of events. In December, Republican Sen. Jim DeMint announced he was quitting the Senate to run the Heritage Foundation, Gov. Nikki Haley appointed GOP Rep. Tim Scott to replace him, and 16 candidates—Mark Sanford among them—filed to run for the open seat. In the race was newcomer Teddy Turner, the conservative son of liberal media mogul Ted Turner, a smattering of local lawyers and officeholders, and a roster of no-names looking for a score.
Along the campaign trail these last few months, Sanford spoke of a “God of second chances” and a “reservoir of human grace” that he says he believes is a reflection of God's grace. His boilerplate response to affair allegations was if you live long enough you're bound to fail somewhere, and while he failed in his personal life he never failed the taxpayer. All around the district staff and volunteers placed plywood signs splashed with black spray paint reading “Sanford Saves Tax $,” a hokey reminder to his frugal folk hero status. Of course, Sanford had the highest name recognition in the field and he had early money to spend left over from an old campaign account. In the end, that was enough.
In the Irish pub, Sanford's oldest son tells me he always thought it was inevitable that his father would run for public office again. In her memoir, his ex-wife Jenny Sanford had written that upon hearing of their dad’s affair, one of the children remarked: “Oh my gosh. This is going to be worse than Eliot Spitzer!”
That was before Spitzer became a co-host of a show on CNN. Before an incredibly popular Bill Clinton gave the best received address at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. These days if you stand strong through your scandal and play to your base, apparently you're golden. Ask Sen. David Vitter.
Back in the Irish pub, Sanford's dentist and former college cheerleading partner Eddie White is watching the returns coming in on a TV above the bar before the candidate arrives. He tells me stories about a young Mark Sanford, an introvert who really cared about politics and how it might have been the only thing he was ever really good at it. And sure, he embarrassed the state of South Carolina. “Get over it,” White says, and shrugs. He takes a sip of his beer. “Everyone shits their pants.” He tells me Mark Sanford is a true man of integrity.
Down the bar a little further is a middle-aged woman who has similar things to say. Sanford was always honest about what happened, she says, not like that Bill Clinton. “When men reach a certain age, something happens,” she told me. “They fall apart.” They buy a boat, she says, or they trade in their wives for a younger woman.
When Sanford arrives at the pub he has his kids in tow. They stand behind him as he takes the microphone. The numbers have come in and it's clear he's the front-runner heading into the runoff. He doesn't talk about forgiveness or a “God of second chances.”
“Are you guys ready to change things in Washington, D.C.?” Sanford asks, his voice rising. The crowd whoops. “Are you in fact ready to do something about the spending train in Washington, D.C?” The crowd goes crazy.
Seven decades ago, Thomas Wolfe published a posthumous novel about a man from the Carolinas who embarrasses the people of his hometown in a book he wrote about it and then tries to return home to menacing threats. It was called You Can't Go Home Again. Thomas Wolfe is dead, and Mark Sanford is in a runoff.