Why Even Republicans Don’t Want to Stand With Mark Sanford

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
April 17 2013 5:12 PM

Sanford and Sons

Mark Sanford’s most recent gaffe is one too many, even for the GOP.

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford at the Republican National Convention on August 28, 2012 in Tampa, Florida.
Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford at the Republican National Convention in August

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It just got too weird in South Carolina for the Republican Party. Mark Sanford, the former governor running in the 1st Congressional District, no longer has the support of his national party after the latest episode in his unpredictable career. The Associated Press reported on Tuesday that Sanford's ex-wife has brought legal proceedings against him. The lawsuit is charging him with trespassing and could lead to contempt-of-court charges for disobeying a judge's order to stay away from his former wife's home. Jenny Sanford found the candidate leaving out the back of the house by the light of his cellphone. Mark Sanford, who famously told staffers he was going to hike the Appalachian Trail when he went to visit his Argentinean girlfriend, has a flair for explanations. He said that he had gone to the house to watch the Super Bowl with his 14-year-old son because "as a father I didn’t think he should watch it alone." Who can disagree? Those Godaddy ads are reason enough to have a parent present. 

The Sanford-and-son story didn't wash with Washington Republicans. Because, it turns out, this wasn't a one-time thing. According to the court papers, Sanford's wife had warned him multiple times to not darken the stoop. Repeatedly he'd broken the court order asking him to stay away. 

Staffers at the National Republican Congressional Committee received word of the news 20 minutes before the Associated Press story hit. Campaign operatives and GOP congressional leaders had a fast powwow, and the way forward was clear. Sanford was a liability. Whatever deep currents propel Sanford’s comings and goings, the NRCC no longer wanted to be tied to them like a tin can to a comet. "We thought we were dealing with the devil we knew," says one operative. "But we weren’t. Do we want to waste precious resources defending a seat that we can’t win right now because of these circumstances?” 

The committee had to move fast before someone called on them to disavow Sanford and before other candidates were asked to defend him. It wasn't an easy decision, say those who were involved. Last week the NRCC made another such call. While Republicans were praising the president for his decision to embrace cuts in future cost-of-living increases in his budget, Rep. Greg Walden, the head of the NRCC, was bashing him for it. House Speaker John Boehner said he disagreed with Walden, but the congressman reiterated his attack. Why? The attack would help Republicans trying to get re-elected. Social Security is a powerful issue, and older voters vote. "Our job is to get Republicans elected," said one party strategist. 

It looks like the committee made the right call about Sanford. After the news broke about the Super Bowl visit, the Washington Post reported on more drama out of South Carolina. Sanford's sons had been upset when Sanford's Argentinean girlfriend turned up at his victory party. It was the first time his oldest son had met her. Sanford's ex-wife confirmed that in a text message to the Post: “That was indeed Bolton’s first intro and both boys were quite upset and visibly so.”

Sanford faces Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch in a May 7 election, and Republican strategists assume that even if Colbert Busch wins, a GOP candidate can win the seat back in 2014 because it is such heavily Republican territory. That is if Sanford doesn't decide to run again if he loses on May 7. He may. After all, he's already proven he likes to come back—even when he’s not wanted.

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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