Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) said Wednesday he would have never run against his ex-wife for a seat in Congress, and acknowledged he consulted Jenny Sanford before entering the race for his former House seat.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R), a former Sanford protégé, had put the former first lady on her shortlist to replace Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) when he resigned last month. Haley instead appointed then-Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), leaving open the House seat Mark Sanford once held. He was open to running for the seat — but only if Jenny Sanford wasn’t.
“I told her if she had an interest in doing this that I’m out, because there’d be nothing crazier than a husband and a wife running against each other,” he said. “It’d be a circus; it’d be bad for the boys; you guys in the media would have a field day with it.” The divorced couple have four sons.
Sanford officially announced his candidacy for the seat left vacant by Scott, which he represented from 1995 to 2001.
Sanford was once a rising star in the GOP and many thought he might one day run for president. The hard-line fiscal conservative became a Tea Party hero when he was the first governor to refuse to accept funds from the federal stimulus package backed by President Obama.
Months later, he became a late-night punchline after disappearing from the state for days, lying to staffers that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail and finally admitting in an emotional press conference that he had been in Argentina having an extramarital affair.
Three years later, Sanford is on an unlikely quest for political redemption — though he says he’s more interested in saving the country than his own profile.
“This thing came completely out of the blue — it’s not where I felt my life was headed,” he said, in reference to the falling political dominoes that created the open House seat.
Sanford left the governor’s mansion in January 2011 feeling “worn out” and “depleted as a human being.” He removed himself from public life, moving to his family farm near Beaufort, down the coast from his old home in suburban Charleston.
“I had a very quiet and very spiritual year. I built some goofy structures with the boys, a bridge and some other things,” he said. “After almost 20 years of nonstop activity and being around people, I needed that time alone.”
But, as Sanford put it, “life starts coming back at you.” He first took a job as a Fox News contributor, then worked for a few companies and got involved in real estate. He thought he was done with politics until Scott’s appointment — when the phone started ringing, and didn’t stop.
“[South Carolina state Sen.] Tom Davis called me and said, ‘Mark, you have to do this, you were talking about debt and spending 20 years ago and here’s a chance for you to take everything you learned on the way up and on the way down and apply it to what is the biggest debate of our time.’ There’s a new financial time bomb going off every couple of months,” Sanford said.
“That’s really the tip of the iceberg based on what’s going to come up next based on the demographics and spending … It’s almost as if my whole life has been preparation for this moment.”
Sanford sounded rejuvenated and and in good spirits, willing to talk about his mistakes. When The Hill said he’d left office under a cloud, he laughed that “that’s a bit generous."
Sanford said he’d talked to his four sons about a potential return to politics and wouldn’t have run without their encouragement. He also has the support of his now-fiancee, the woman with whom he had the affair. He said his fiancee still lives in Argentina and wasn’t sure if she’d be involved in the campaign.
“She’s a very private person. We’ll see,” Sanford said, his sunny demeanor dimmed for the only time in the interview.
“Look, I’ve lived soap-opera world before. I love this woman, I’m engaged to her and I’m going to marry her, and I’ll leave it at that."
The former governor will face a crowded primary field, with a number of other Republicans jumping in for the seat. Most GOP strategists in the state expect him to advance to the second round of the primary. Whether he can win then might depend on if his opponent is sufficiently conservative for the GOP base voters — and if enough of them have forgiven Sanford.
When asked why voters concerned about his personal missteps should back him over some of the other conservative Republicans in the race, Sanford argued he had a “rather unusual record on the degree of consistency, advocacy and push for limited government.” He pointed out his opposition to accepting stimulus funds, and that he’d been rated the most fiscally conservative governor in the nation by the National Taxpayers Union and Citizens Against Government Waste.
“The reality of humanity is if you live long enough you’ll fail at something. And I failed, period. There’s no getting around it,” he said. “What I learned in the wake of that is that there’s this amazing reservoir of grace. A lot of people have told me they’re not going to judge me on my worst day any more than on my best day. I hope they’d look at the whole of what I’ve been doing in this community for 52 years and public office for 20 years.”
He recognized that might not be enough for some.
“Some people will look at that and never forgive me, and that’s a consequence of my sin,” he said. “What I’ve heard from many folks is they’ll forgive me. I think what the numbers are on that will likely shape this race.”