MT. PLEASANT, S.C.— The people who believed in Mark Sanford started arriving before 7 p.m., parking their cars with varying degrees of legality and then walking into Liberty Tap Room. Sanford’s campaign had commandeered the entire bar, putting up spray-painted SANFORD SAVES TAX $ signs in the corner where the candidate would speak and turning all the TV channels to the local news. The first results, displayed on a small ticker below that night’s episode of Jeopardy, gave Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch a narrow lead.
How could this happen? For a brief and worried moment, I hear all the theories. Shirley Rabens, a retiree and activist with the Charleston County Republicans, picks over some shrimp from the buffet and bemoans the money and volunteer strike teams sent by national Democrats into her corner of South Carolina.
“It ought to be against the law to send people down from Washington to run a campaign like this,” she seethes. “This is a local election. This is for us to decide.”
To be fair to Charleston-area Democrats, they felt that way, too. When I’d touched base at the “Elizabeth” party (by the end, everyone was using her first name, or “ECB,” or occasionally “Lulu”), I found a family reunion of beaten-down low-country liberals who hadn’t held a congressional seat here since Jimmy Carter and hadn’t won any GOP seats in 47 attempts. A capable soft jazz band played as Charles Smith, who’d made a couple of failed attempts for the seat in years past, told me how he’d organized “the fundraiser that Elizabeth said she liked the best.”
But we’d felt doom in the ether, so I—like the other national “parachute” reporters—had driven over the bridge to the Sanford party. There, the worry and regret lasted only as long as the first vote counts in the precincts which were breaking against them. Tiny Edisto Beach seemed to have gone to sleep on Republicans, with a huge fall-off from 2012, and the first votes from somewhere in Charleston had Colbert Busch up by 18 points.
Then the suburban vote came in. A cheer went up as the little ticker—it was below The Voice now—recorded a 51-49 Sanford lead. By 8:02 p.m., an hour after the polls closed, votes were rolling in from Charleston. The Democratic lead there, the only thing that could have kept the race close, was collapsing. Those in the know were finally partying. I’d wanted to refresh a micro-buffet of fried delights for a few reporters who were, like me, working on the tavern’s porch, so I joined the queue right in front of a white-haired Mt. Pleasant poll-watcher named Roger O’Sullivan, who’d been working ECB’s home precinct.
“What’s the percentage of the vote we got?” he asks. “Somebody have an iPhone?” I have an iPhone and do O’Sullivan’s math: Sanford got 861 of 1492 votes, a 58 percent blowout where his opponent lived and slept.
“You know what did it?” asks Sullivan. “I did 24 mailings in this area. Turnout was up. That was all my mailing. It was tough. It said what needed to be said, you know: Do you want to see Nancy Pelosi back GMAC? Government loans, Fannie and Freddie? Well, you’ve got to vote. And it worked. I spent $600 on it, so it better have worked.”
The agreed-upon take on an election calcifies about as fast as the votes are counted. A week ago it wasn’t at all clear that Sanford could simply remind voters that Colbert Busch was a Democrat, and that they didn’t really like Democrats, and that this would be enough to win. After 8 p.m. Tuesday, the fellowship of reporters who’d parachuted in and the local wags who’d been covering the race were involuntarily mind-melding. Wow, she was a lousy candidate, wasn’t she?
“She was fine in the debate, but she never went from good to great,” says Will Folks, the editor of FITSNews and a man still most famous outside the state for claiming to have had an affair (before she won) with married South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. “I kept waiting for her to shift into a second gear—good answer, OK, now finish the point! She never did. She never came up with an issue that would separate her from national Democrats.” He shakes his head, not really out of sympathy for the candidate, more out of respect for the deceased. “They had this. They really had it and they threw it away.”
At 8:32, the official calls start coming in, and energetic young volunteers in blue blazers flit around to spread the news. Near our press table there’s a deafening roar: “YAAAAAHOOOO! CHARLESTON HELD THE LINE!” The screamer is Ed Evans, a 22-year Marine Corps veteran who made “a lot of damn phone calls” for Sanford. He turns toward a bank of a dozen TV cameras. “Tell the world, Charleston HELD THE DAMN LINE!”
Evans slaps backs and apologizes for his volume. He’s just thrilled, he says, because he “didn’t come back from the Marines to deal with this chicken shit”—i.e., watch Sanford lose. “None of these Republicans in D.C. will hold the line, but we’re sending in Mark Sanford. We sent a message to the world tonight!”
“The whole country is watching us,” chirps Charles Morgan, a retiree who says he made 500 election-day phone calls for Sanford.
As the crowd presses closer, and the heat and sweat grow harder to ignore, the conversation turns to “the message.” The election obviously won’t be seen outside this room as a victory for conservative values. No, it was Act 17 or Act 20 of a soap opera. And that’s fine. Let the people outside this room misunderstand Sanford’s personal journey.
“Of course he’s not perfect,” says Evans. “There was one perfect person, and they put him on the cross.”
Paula Viel joins the conversation by mocking all the “tweeters” spending the bitter night joking about Sanford. “They lost and they’re angry,” she says. “Ohhhhh, they’re tweeting? Let ‘em tweet, tweety birds!”
Finally, close to 9 p.m., Sanford emerges in the hot balcony of the bar. He slowly, carefully navigates a path down the narrow stairs that will take him from there to the camera set-up, the place with all the wooden signs. When he gets there, he grabs an overturned buffet pan and hoists it triumphantly, and the crowd reacts instinctively, passing it back like we’re at a Bouncing Souls show and some straight edge kid has jumped off the stage. Eventually Sanford realizes that the pan was there for him to stand on—“I need the pan back!”—and it returns, and he starts his speech.
“Some guy came up to me the other day,” says Sanford, “and he said, ‘You look a lot like Lazarus.”
“Rose from the dead, baby!” yells a woman in front of me.
“If it was just about market-based ideas and limited government,” says Sanford, “this campaign would have been easily won long ago. But I had deficiencies, that were well-chronicled, as a candidate.” He thanks his staff, including some long-defeated primary opponents who’ve been walking around the party, and then starts to preach.
“I want to publicly acknowledge God’s role in all this,” he says. “Not that he said, ‘You’re it,’ but what he said was, not that you’ll win, you’ll learn.” Sanford thanks his ex-wife, and he thanks his mistress-turned-fiancé, who’s right there in view of the cameras, then he remembers the “angels” he met on the trail, like a woman in Edisto Beach who’d “had a health scare, and she’d had a chance to work at the convenience store,” and by extension taught him the value of appreciating what you have.
“I think she was an angel,” says Sanford. “The number of people who God brought up with me, with God’s grace, have been angels.”
This is a speech for believers, not tweeters. Don Fort, a volunteer wearing a gray T-shirt with the slogan PRAY, VOTE, PRAY, waves his hand in the air, as if Sanford’s giving a sermon—which, to be honest, he sort of is.
It takes ages for the crowd to break up. Sanford will end up staying at Liberty until midnight, talking to anyone—reporter, fan, whoever—with a glass of water in his hand. Maria Belen Chapur—Sanford’s Argentine fiancé—sticks around too, pinned for a while between the exit and the men’s room, where a succession of Sanford reporters—mostly male—meet her and get photos taken with her. I walk past her as one donor in a pinstriped suit gushes that the Sanford-Chapur affair is “the great romance of all time,” and she poker-faces her way through it, as a photographer lurks waiting to get a picture of her with Sanford.
It seems wise to give them some space, so I end up talking to John Reese, who runs a mobile dental care outfit. Sanford, he says, once contacted him from the governor’s office to ask whether a bill would impact the dental business.
“I said it would,” says Reese, “so I basically helped a bill get vetoed. Now, how many politicians do you know who would do that? I only know one.”
What’s a nice way of asking the next question? How about: Can Sanford be effective in Congress this time around, given the story that made him infamous?
“I don’t know if you’re a Christian or not,” says Reese, “but I can think of a couple guys in the Bible that had some failings. David being one, he turned out OK. Paul, another one, killed more Christians than anybody. He was an expert in the law, and he killed Christians. Moses killed somebody too, and he did OK.”
“And Mark Sanford didn’t kill anybody!” says John’s wife, Katie. “Grace has got to be part of life, or you couldn’t work with anybody.”