(CBS NEWS) -- Nearly four years after watching his political reputation go up in
smoke, Mark Sanford, South Carolina's former Republican governor, is
trying to reclaim his place in the state's political landscape.
ability to rise from the ashes of an infamous and widely mocked scandal
will be tested Tuesday, when voters in South Carolina's first
congressional district head to the polls to elect their new
In 2009, then-Governor Sanford
disappeared from South Carolina for four days with no explanation,
leading his staff to tell reporters he'd gone hiking on the Appalachian
Trail. In fact, he'd gone to Argentina to visit a woman he'd been seeing
(at the time, he was married to someone else), a fact to which he
eventually admitted. Sanford was censured by the state legislature and
gave up his leadership position within the Republican Governors
Association, but ultimately served out the remainder of his term.
more than two years after leaving office, he's running for his old SC-1
congressional seat against Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch - a
political newcomer and the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert -- in the
hopes he can redeem himself with the people of South Carolina and
kick-start his political career.
Even in the solidly red state of South Carolina, however, not everyone's ready to take him back.
think there's a large number of people around the state that would like
to see Mark fade off into the sunset," said South Carolina Republican
strategist Chip Felkel, in an interview with CBSNews.com. "Mark is
someone who's been consistent in his frugalness and his philosophical
views on government, but I just don't know. I just don't know if it'll
be enough. There are some people I think who would like him to go away.
It's gonna be close."
Felkel found himself close to
describing South Carolina's relationship with Sanford as one of
love-hate, but he stopped himself short.
"I don't know that you could say love-hate -- because I don't know how much he's loved," he said.
after all, was not the first choice among South Carolina Republicans:
Members of South Carolina's Congressional Delegation originally got
behind state Senator Larry Grooms, R-S.C., and the National Republican
Senatorial Committee (NRSC) declined to back Sanford after it came out
he had an impending court date for having previously broken into his
ex-wife's house. Now, according to Felkel, the party is tepidly
supporting a candidate most Republicans in the state wouldn't mind
seeing fade from the spotlight.
"I think they want to
hold the seat. And Sanford is the nominee. And therefore they're going
to wince a little [but] be supportive," Felkel said. "From a policy
standpoint, they can hold their noses about the personal stuff."
the personal stuff hasn't been forgotten. And some Republicans believe
that a Colbert Busch win in the heavily red district wouldn't be the end
of the world: She'd likely face another tough challenge in 2016, and
Sanford, meanwhile, would be out of the game.
lost this race, it's a seat Republicans could reclaim in two years,"
Felker said. "And it's a way to put a nail in the coffin of Mark Sanford
in the meantime."
Democrats have been quick to seize on the
negativity surrounding Sanford's history: Various Democratic groups -
including the House Majority PAC and the Democratic Congressional
Campaign Committee (DCCC) -- have run television ads focusing on the
2009 incident, and they're aggressively mobilizing behind a candidate
they think might have a rare shot at victory in a state that's reliably
"It's a dead heat. It really is. It's tight
as a tick right now," said South Carolina Democratic consultant Tyler
Jones, who is also an associate director of the South Carolina House
Democratic Caucus. "Voters in this state frankly are tired of hearing
about Mark Sanford, and seeing him on television, and the last thing
they want is for him to represent them in Congress again."
argued that between voters' dislike for Sanford, and the strength of
Colbert Busch's credibility as a "moderate, fiscal conservative"
businesswoman, "that's giving a lot of Republicans some cover to vote
Colbert Busch, however, is an untested
political candidate, and she has no political record from which voters
can gleam clues about how she'd govern if elected. She's also run a
tightly controlled campaign, participating in only in one untelevised
debate while turning down several additional appearances, and she has
been slow to make definitive statements about critical issues like
repealing Obamacare. (Colbert Busch has called Obamacare "problematic"
and suggested she might repeal it, but she has not come down
definitively on that question.)
According to Joel Sawyer, a
Sanford campaign spokesman, the Democratic candidate is merely
benefiting from the hundreds of thousands of dollars Democratic donors
have poured into the race.
"She's been fairly thin with
regard to substance," said Sawyer. "She's tried to couch herself as a
moderate independent voice, but very liberal special interests have
poured a very significant amount of money into getting her elected."
major part of the Sanford campaign strategy has been to nationalize the
race, painting Colbert Busch as a pawn of Nancy Pelosi and the
Democratic establishment. Sanford, in one of his less conventional
moves, actually "debated" a cardboard cutout of Pelosi as a publicity
stunt for his campaign. The bottom line, Sawyer argues, is that Colbert
Busch is posing as something she's not: A moderate conservative who will
stand up to the Democratic party.
"If she were
legitimately a moderate she could point out some specific issues where
she differed from" Pelosi and national Democrats, he argued. "The point
is, she's not moderate."
Without a political record to
examine, it's difficult for voters to know exactly what to expect from
any untested candidate, Colbert Busch included. As BuzzFeed reported
Sunday, questions to the candidate about how she'd differentiate
herself from the Democratic establishment yielded little information.
wait till the 7th, [let's] get elected, and we'll sit down and we'll
all talk to each other," Colbert Busch told reporters, per BuzzFeed.
"We'll collaborate with each other, we'll work with each other."
apparent boost in momentum suggests that Sanford's strategy has been
working, at least to some degree. But the day before Election Day, he
was still hedging his bets.
"I'm not going to make
predictions," added Sawyer, about Sanford's prospects at victory. "We
think that we've got some momentum working in our favor, but anytime
you're outspent four-to-one on television, I think you're heading into
Election Day as a little bit of an underdog."
about turnout," added Tyler. "I think the weather might be a factor, and
I think that hurts him more than it hurts us. But you couldn't pay me
to bet on this race right now."
A spokesman for Colbert Busch did not respond to multiple requests for comment.