Mark Sanford’s South Carolina success stirs national Republican anxiety

The prospect of a Mark Sanford primary victory in South Carolina has some Republicans complaining his candidacy will leave their party open to Democratic attack as it tries to rebrand itself among women.

Sanford’s promising political career collapsed in 2009 when he admitted to an extramarital affair with an Argentinean woman — now his fiancée — after aides initially claimed he’d gone hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

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On Tuesday, he took the first step in what would be an extraordinary comeback by finishing far ahead of the Republican pack in the first round of voting in the GOP primary to fill the House seat vacated by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.).

A victory will match Sanford against businesswoman Elizabeth Colbert Busch (D), the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert, in a race certain to draw national attention.

While Sanford’s supporters applaud his determination to rehabilitate his image — and revive his career — many Republican activists say his candidacy is a gift to Democrats, who will make his past marital infidelity a central focus in the special election on May 7.

“If Sanford gets out there, the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] will run all the Appalachian Trail stuff and make him into a mockery,” said GOP strategist Noelle Nikpour, who authored a book on political branding titled Branding America.

“It’s not that I dislike Mark Sanford or don’t think he should have redemption, but why do you want to run for public office after all this crapola?”

The South Carolina special comes as the Republican Party is in the midst of a post-2012 rebranding process aimed at building appeal with demographic groups — including women — who have trended toward Democrats in recent elections.

Comments linking rape and abortion by GOP Senate candidates Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana didn’t play well with female voters, and they cost Republicans two Senate seats the party appeared likely to win.

Washington has seen plenty of philandering politicians in both parties who didn’t hurt their party’s vote with women; Republicans cite former President Clinton as a prime example.

And Sanford spent the early part of his House campaign on an apology tour seeking forgiveness for the personal problems, an effort that may have paid dividends with the results from Tuesday’s election. As a result, there’s disagreement about the impact the South Carolina race might have — if any — on the national party’s brand.

“No doubt people will try to make it a national narrative. I don’t think it is,” said GOP strategist Ann Marie Hauser. “I don’t think [Sanford] is going to be an albatross — if elected, he’ll be a hardworking member of Congress.”

“It’s not a national race any more than special elections are ever omens for things whether Republicans or Democrats win them. Rarely do special elections mean anything,” said former National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.).

Still, GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said a Sanford candidacy “could be a real nightmare” for national Republicans.

A survey from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling last December — before the South Carolina House seat became open — showed 56 percent of women in the state held an unfavorable view of Sanford. Only 29 percent held a favorable view.

“Stephen Colbert will have a field day with this, with his sister in the race especially. Democratic strategists have to be salivating about using this as a wedge issue. A little seat in South Carolina can be a way to drive a national narrative on this wedge issue with the GOP and single women,” O’Connell said.

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Sanford’s campaign pushed back Wednesday against the notion he has a problem with female voters.

“We’ve not seen any data showing that’s the case,” Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer told The Hill.

Sanford hasn’t yet got a lock on the GOP nomination — but he’ll be very difficult to beat.

The former governor won 37 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s primary, short of the 50 percent he needed to avoid a runoff.

He'll face attorney Curtis Bostic (R) in the April 2 runoff. Bostic finished with 13 percent of the vote in Tuesday's primary, barely ahead of South Carolina state Sen. Larry Grooms (R). The close finish raised the possibility of a recount, but Grooms conceded on Wednesday. 

Sanford could have work to do persuading members of South Carolina’s congressional delegation that he is an asset rather than liability, though.

Two South Carolina GOP lawmakers — Reps. Mick Mulvaney and Jeff Duncan — endorsed Grooms ahead of the Tuesday’s vote, though neither specifically criticized Sanford.

If Sanford wins the runoff, national Republican leaders like Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) will be pressed to take a stand on his candidacy, creating the potential for him to become a distraction.

“It’s going to be a circus because Mark Sanford is determined to be the clown,” said John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College and a former Republican National Committee staffer.

“The party doesn’t want to be talking about South American dalliances, they want to be talking about the budget. It’s not Boehner’s biggest problem right now, but it’s a problem he doesn’t need.”

- This story was updated at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday