Mark Sanford Asked Ex-Wife To Run His Congressional Campaign

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
March 4 2013 11:00 AM

Why Mark Sanford Wanted His Ex-Wife To Run His Comeback Campaign

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Mark Sanford has the name recognition to win the South Carolina race, but there's one woman who could still sink his campaign

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Jason Zengerle has a long profile of ex-South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford in the latest edition of New York magazine that's worth a read for anyone fascinated by the Republican's return to politics less than four years after he became a national punchline thanks to his time "hiking" the Appalachian trail. But the nugget that's making the most headlines this morning is that the Republican asked his ex-wife Jenny to be his campaign manager late last year when he was laying the groundwork for his bid to fill Rep. Tim Scott's old House seat:

When [Mark] first ran for Congress in 1994, he installed Jenny as his campaign manager. He did this for reasons of economy—"You’re free," he told her at the time—but she proved a natural at the job. She blossomed into a shrewd political strategist, running Mark’s subsequent campaigns and becoming his top adviser. Will Folks, a former Sanford press secretary, says, "There’s absolutely no way he would have ever won the congressional seat or been governor without her."  ...
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So when Mark came to visit her, he arrived with a proposal. "Since you’re not running, I want to know if you’ll run my campaign," he said. "We could put the team back together." Jenny told him, in so many words, that wasn’t going to happen.

But as interesting as that personal tidbit may be—it suggests either that Jenny Sanford is a more forgiving person than most, or that Mark Sanford still hasn't figured out how personal relationships work—it's not at all surprising on a political level. While Jenny's past successes running her then-husband's campaigns may be the official reason the ex-governor and his friends are giving for the offer, there'd have also clearly been a more obvious benefit of having her fill that role: namely, her automatic endorsement of his campaign, something that would no doubt go a long way toward winning over those South Carolinians still skeptical of a man who left his wife and children at home to carry on an affair in a foreign country:

There is really only one person who poses a serious threat to Sanford’s campaign. "Clearly Jenny has the ability to determine whether Mark wins or loses this race," says one Sanford associate, who spells out two scenarios. "If Jenny went out there and said, ‘This man caused me humiliation, he put me through emotional hell, but we’re all human, I think he’s genuinely sorry for what happened, and there’s nobody in this field who’d make a bigger difference in Washington,’ then he’d win hands down." Conversely, the associate posits, "If she said what hasn’t been told is just how cruel he is and how self-centered he is, and how he knew this was going to cause pain to me and the kids and it didn’t matter to him, she’d automatically sink his campaign."

Despite Sanford's embarrassing past, his strong name recognition and conservative resume have made him the early front-runner to earn the GOP nomination for the seat, setting up a likely general election match-up with Elizabeth Colbert-Busch. While Colbert-Busch has her own advantages—namely the fundraising machine that is her brother, Stephen—she'd face an uphill battle in a dark red South Carolina district that favors whichever candidate Republican primary voters put forward. You can read the full piece here.

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Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. Follow him on Twitter.