Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford — once a rising star in the Republican Party whose career crashed four years ago after a bizarre extramarital affair — capped a remarkable political comeback Tuesday by winning a special election for the state's open House seat.
Political analysts this week had pegged the race between the Republican and Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch — sister of TV comedian and political satirist Stephen Colbert — as a dead heat. But Mr. Sanford won with ease, capturing 54 percent of the vote, compared with his opponent's 45 percent.
The South Carolina seat opened up after Gov. Nikki Haley appointed Rep. Tim Scott to the Senate seat vacated by Jim DeMint, a Republican who left to join the conservative Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon saw the result as a bellwether for elections next year.
"These results demonstrate just how devastating the policies of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi are for House Democrats in 2014," Mr. Walden said in a prepared statement.
"Democrats spent more than $1 million trying to elect a candidate who was backed by the Democrat machine, but at the end of the day, running on the Obama-Pelosi ticket was just too toxic for Elizabeth Colbert Busch."
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel had a different take, praising Mrs. Colbert Busch for pushing Mr. Sanford into a competitive contest in Republican-dominated district, saying it was a "testament to the strength of Elizabeth Colbert Busch as a candidate and the Republican habit of nominating flawed candidates."
Mr. Israel vowed that Democrats will be "aggressive and drive deep into Republican-held territory this [election] cycle to find districts with flawed Republican candidates where we can compete."
Mr. Sanford, who never has lost a political race, once was mentioned as a possible 2012 presidential candidate. But his reputation and career unraveled after he infamously disappeared in 2009, supposedly to "hike the Appalachian Trail," but instead traveled to Argentina to visit his mistress.
He quietly finished his second term as governor in early 2011 and kept a low profile until jumping into the House race this year.
Mr. Sanford's candidacy seemed to be in trouble last month when his ex-wife, Jenny, filed a complaint accusing him of trespassing on her property during the Super Bowl.
His problems compounded when the National Republican Congressional Committee, the fundraising arm of House Republicans, pulled its financial support from the campaign weeks ago.
But momentum in recent days shifted to Mr. Sanford when he got a boost from several high-profile Republican endorsements, including Mr. Scott, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a tea party favorite who is considering a 2016 presidential run.
By Sunday, a poll by Public Policy Polling showed the race had become a tossup, with Mr. Sanford ahead 47 percent to 46 percent. Two weeks earlier, a PPP survey had Mr. Sanford trailing by 9 percentage points.
Mr. Sanford portrayed his opponent as an uncompromising liberal in lockstep with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and other national Democrats — a devastating charge in the staunchly Republican coastal Carolina district.
Mrs. Colbert Busch pushed back, saying she would be an independent voice for the district.
Yet political forces may make it difficult for Mr. Sanford to repeat in the 2014 election.
The former governor has been shunned by much of the Republican Party establishment since his 2009 scandal.
The Republican establishment expectantly would put its weight behind a formidable opponent in the 2014 GOP primary.
"House leaders will isolate him to make it clear he is not in any way a spokesperson for the House GOP," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
As for whether Tuesday's special election has any deeper meaning on the national political landscape, many political analysts say no.
"I don't think this one reflects anything. It's all about Mark Sanford," Mr. Sabato said. "Does anyone believe that any other Republican wouldn't be winning this in a landslide? It's a one-party district."
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