Democrats target Sanford's past ethics woes as South Carolina vote nears

Democrats are vowing to attack former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) over his troubled past in next month's special House election — but they have no plans to focus on his marital infidelities.

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Party strategists believe there's little to gain from harping on Sanford's infamous extramarital affair because voters know all about it. They believe attacks on his alleged misuse of taxpayer dollars and other charges in a 2009 state ethics commission report will be much more damaging.

Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), a supporter of Democratic nominee Elizabeth Colbert Busch, sought to drive that point home on Wednesday — a day after Sanford won the Republican primary in South Carolina's 1st congressional district.

“I suspect that the Colbert campaign is probably going to highlight that ethics report and things in there, which I do believe that Mark Sanford needs to answer for," Clyburn said on MSNBC.

“I think that the voters are going to make this determination and voters are concerned about ethics, and so I think that's an issue that he's going to have to face," he continued. 

Sanford shot to national attention — and disrepute — in 2009 when he tearfully admitted to being with his Argentine mistress after telling his staff he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. 

After that scandal, South Carolina state lawmakers ordered an investigation into whether he’d broken ethics rules and whether he should be impeached for those violations.

A report from the official state ethics commission found 37 possible ethics violations, most of them stemming from Sanford using state funds for private air travel, including to visit his mistress.

An ethics committee in the Republican-controlled statehouse eventually threw out all but four charges because lawmakers deemed some untrue and said others did not rise to the level of impeachable offenses. 

Sanford pled no contest to the rest, paying $74,000 in fines — a state record for the highest ethics fine ever paid — as well as $36,000 to cover the cost of the investigation.

“His disappearance [with his Argentinian mistress], I don't think is going to be an issue, but when you look at the ethics report, I don't think many people have looked very hard at the ethics report," Clyburn said. 

One Democratic strategist involved in the race was more explicit about their plans.

“Everyone knows about Sanford's personal life situation. We don't intend to talk about that — but what people have forgotten, both in South Carolina and nationally, is there were other results from that situation. It wasn't just about the Appalachian Trail, it was about what he did to people in the state,” said the strategist, who spoke on background. 

“We're also going to remind people he made the state a laughingstock. There was a whole year where we were on late-night TV every night and didn't really have a governor.”

Public and private polls show the race is close despite the district’s heavy Republican lean. The election is set for May 7. 

If Colbert Busch can maintain her image as a centrist businesswoman and Democrats can further undermine Sanford’s already weak approval ratings in the district, supporters believe she has a good chance of pulling off the upset.

James Smith, a spokesman for Colbert Busch, said her campaign would be about “jobs, reducing the deficit and focusing on the fiscal issues in this district” and not about Sanford. 

But after the former governor won Tuesday’s primary, Smith issued a statement saying the district’s voters “need a representative who they can trust” and that Sanford “simply has the wrong values for our community.”

Outside groups will also likely do the heavy lifting in negative attacks, allowing Colbert Busch to focus on positive messaging.

Sanford’s campaign argues he didn’t violate any state ethics laws and paid the fines in order to put the matter to bed.

“He thought it'd be in the best interests of the state to just move forward rather than litigate it,” said Sanford campaign strategist Joel Sawyer, who was the governor's communications director when the scandal broke but had resigned by the time of the investigation. 

“I still believe if we'd litigated it all out with the state ethics commission, we would have won.”

Sawyer said that the attacks show Colbert Busch and her allies want to “make this about anything and everything except the issues,” and accused her of having “a history of advocating for bigger government and more spending.”

The attacks on Sanford’s record have already begun. 

South Forward, an outside group focused on helping southern Democrats, is running a Web ad attacking Sanford on the ethics charges and accusing him of breaking a term-limits pledge he made when first in Congress in the 1990s. 

The group plans to put the ad on television next week with a significant, six-figure ad buy.

“Mark Sanford promised he'd only serve three terms in Congress. He promised he'd never misuse taxpayer money," the ad's narrator says. "Mark Sanford made a lot of promises and broke them all. Now Mark Sanford says he's 'learned' from his mistakes. The real question is: Will we?"

No outside groups besides South Forward have yet invested in the race — but that’s likely to change soon, as Republicans hold their noses with their flawed candidate and with Democratic groups closely watching the race.

“Our job is to keep the seat red. We're going to do whatever it takes,” said an official from the National Republican Congressional Committee. 

“Over the next few weeks we'll have a better idea of what that [involvement] will look like. The voters spoke, and we're moving forward.”

A number of Republicans are privately grumbling, however, that, if Sanford hadn’t become the nominee, the seat wouldn’t be competitive at all. They're worried he could cost them the race — or embarrass the party if he wins.

“He's an embarrassment. He's a disgrace. Yes, I'm frustrated. It's a real disappointment because this is just going to be one more embarrassment for the Republican Party, whether he wins or loses,” one national Republican strategist told The Hill. “He could cost us this seat. Even if he wins, he comes back to Congress, and that's not exactly great for us either.”