Mark Sanford’s plea for forgiveness succeeded with South Carolina voters, and now his Republican colleagues will have to decide whether they too will forgive him.
Early indications suggest he will be able to win them over, after his 9 percentage point victory in Tuesday’s special congressional election.
Minutes after his race was called, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden embraced Mr. Sanford as a signal of Republicans’ prospects heading into the 2014 elections.
“Congratulations to Mark Sanford for winning tonight’s special election,” the Oregon lawmaker said in a prepared statement. “These results demonstrate just how devastating the policies of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi are for House Democrats in 2014.”
The statement was in contrast to the cold shoulder Mr. Sanford’s campaign got from the committee, which pulled funding for his run after his ex-wife Jenny accused him of trespassing.
Mr. Sanford’s new Capitol Hill boss — House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican — also offered his congratulations, saying in a statement through spokesman Cory Fritz that the South Carolinian “will have the opportunity to make a difference for his constituents as a member of the Republican House majority.”
The Republican National Committee acknowledged Mr. Sanford’s victory as well, saying in a Twitter post that “his win is a clear victory for Conservative principles of freedom & equal opportunity.”
The missives weren’t full-throated support and focused more on the conservative coastal Carolina 1st District’s distaste for Democrats than on any admiration for Mr. Sanford. But they did indicate a significant crack in the icy relationship between the party establishment and the once-disgraced former South Carolina governor.
“He’s shown some volatility during the primary, so I’m sure that Republicans will keep a watchful eye on him, but he’s now part of the conference, part of the team, and they’ll likely treat him as such,” Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said.
Gibbs Knotts, chairman of the political science department at South Carolina’s College of Charleston, agreed that House Republican leaders can’t afford to ignore Mr. Sanford and his vote on the chamber floor.
“I don’t buy into [the theory] like some that he’s going to be the skunk in the room,” he said. “He’s been talking about a lot of the issues that Republicans care deeply about … and I suspect they’ll be glad to have another [Republican] member in the House.”
“I suspect that he’ll be embraced” by House Republicans.
Mr. Sanford, who has never lost a political race, once was mentioned as a possible presidential candidate. But his reputation and career unraveled after he infamously disappeared in 2009 while governor — supposedly to “hike the Appalachian Trail,” but instead traveled to Argentina to visit his mistress.
He quietly finished his second term in January 2011 and kept a low profile until jumping into the House race this year.
While most party regulars have shunned Mr. Sanford since his affair became public, several high-profile Republicans endorsed him in the final week of his campaign. The list includes Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and South Carolina’s two senators, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, the former House member whose appointment to the upper chamber in December triggered the special election.
In the days leading up to election, political analysts pegged the race between Mr. Sanford 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 to his opponent’s 45 percent.
Mr. Knotts says the polls may have been skewed because some voters may have been too embarrassed to admit they supported the disgraced Republican.
They “ultimately were going to vote for him but they wanted to keep that between them and the voting booth and not necessary tell a pollster,” he said.
Some speculate the Republican Party will back a formidable challenger to Mr. Sanford if he runs for re-election in 2014, as expected. But others say the party establishment likely will take a wait-and-see approach before making such a decision.
“Now that Sanford’s coming back to Washington, Republicans will be looking for consistent behavior from him and a solid voting record. And if he does those things then he’ll be in solid standing” with the party, Mr. Bonjean said.
“No matter how people feel about Sanford, he won the election and has a vote in Washington, and his behavior will dictate whether he sticks around for very long.”
Democrats, meanwhile, already are plotting ways to use Mr. Sanford against the Republicans in next year’s mid-term elections — calling into question their rival’s wisdom and ethics for backing a once scandal-riddled member.
“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,” said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.