After giving Mark Sanford the cold shoulder for months, the Republican establishment slowly is warming to the former governor's campaign for South Carolina's open House seat, with several key Republicans weighing in with endorsements in recent days.
Mr. Sanford still suffers from money problems, as the National Republican Congressional Committee has pulled its support. And an embarrassing trespassing complaint filed against him by his former wife — who divorced him after a high-profile extramarital affair in 2009 while governor — gave a boost to the campaign of his Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Colbert Busch.
But newfound support from within the party — including the endorsements this week from the state's two Republican senators — has given the sagging Sanford campaign a boost ahead of Tuesday's special election that many analysts say is too close to call.
South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Chad Connelly downplayed the late timing of the endorsements, saying that special elections don't follow the same patterns as tradition November races.
"Let's face it, special elections are quirky. It's more about turnout," he said. "You want to build momentum at the end more so in a special [election] like this when you're trying to say to people, 'Hey, pay attention.'"
Whether Mr. Sanford's late support is fueled by genuine admiration or GOP fear it could lose the district for the first time in more than three decades — or a bit of both — is uncertain.
"It seems awfully late for the campaign to have the Republican establishment, the state's Republican establishment, come forward and endorse Sanford," said Gibbs Knotts, chairman of the political science department at South Carolina's College of Charleston. "It could be there is a very real chance for this race to go to the Democrats ... there could be a little bit of a panic by the Republicans."
The seat, which Mr. Sanford held from 1995 to 2001 before serving two terms as governor, traditionally has been a GOP stronghold.
But his extramarital implosion, along with the surprising strength of Mrs. Colbert Bush's campaign — which has been aided by her famous brother, TV personality Stephen Colbert — have given Democrats hope they can capture the coastal South Carolina district.
There has been little independent polling in the race. A survey conducted last month by the liberal-leaning Public Policy Polling showed Mrs. Colbert Busch with a 9 percentage point lead. But most analysts say the race is much tighter.
Republican Sen. Tim Scott, the former House member whose appointment to the Senate in December triggered the special election, said Mr. Sanford "merits support."
"On all the most important issues facing our state and country — from dealing with our dangerous levels of debt, to repealing or resisting the government health care takeover, to standing up for Charleston jobs against the [National Labor Relations Board] — 1st District voters have a stark choice," Mr. Scott said in a statement Wednesday.
"Mark Sanford is hands down better on all of those issues, and that's why I believe he merits support."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, in a series of Twitter posts Wednesday, publicly threw his support to Mr. Sanford, saying he "will vote to cut wasteful spending, eliminate debt & make gov't work for the taxpayer. We need him in Washington."
Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican contemplating a run for president in 2016, also this week endorsed Mr. Sanford, praising his "fiscal responsibility and liberty."
Mr. Paul's father, Ron, a former Texas congressman and 2008 and 2012 GOP presidential candidate, and South Carolina's Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, also support Mr. Sanford's campaign.
And Mr. Sanford got some help this week from outside the GOP establishment, winning the endorsement of the conservative FreedomWorks' political action committee.
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