Sanford pulls off political comeback with win over Colbert Busch in South Carolina

Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) has won his House special election, completing his improbable return to office just years after leaving the public sphere in disgrace.

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Sanford leads Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, comedian Stephen Colbert’s sister, by 54 to 46 percent, with 71 percent of precincts counted. The Associated Press has called the race.

The former governor held on for the win in the conservative, Charleston-based district despite an intense focus on his sizable personal baggage and no support from the national party.

Sanford struck a humble note in his victory speech, saying he had "deficiencies that were well-chronicled as a candidate" that made the race closer than it could have been. But he made it clear he won't waver on his fiscal conservatism, saying his win sends a "message to Washington, D.C., and a messenger to Washington, D.C., on the importance on changing things in that fair city."

"I'm one imperfect man saved by God's grace, but one who has a conviction on the importance of doing something about spending," he concluded.

National Republican Campaign Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) congratulated Sanford on his victory before quickly pivoting back to a national message.

“Congratulations to Mark Sanford for winning tonight’s special election," he said in a statement. "These results demonstrate just how devastating the policies of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi are for House Democrats in 2014. 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 (DCCC) Chairman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) sought to tie Sanford to the national GOP in response.

"House Republicans’ outreach to women voters now has Mark Sanford as the face. Republicans now have to defend him and stand with him until Election Day," he said in a statement. "In this deep red Republican district that Mitt Romney won by 18 points, the fact that the Democrat made this competitive is a testament to the strength of Elizabeth Colbert Busch as a candidate and the Republican habit of nominating flawed candidates. Democrats will be aggressive and drive deep into Republican-held territory this cycle to find districts with flawed Republican candidates where we can compete."

The DCCC spent nearly a half-million dollars on Colbert Busch's behalf, while the Democratic-aligned House Majority PAC spent more than $400,000.

According to a DCCC official, the committee raised as much as it spent on the race.

Sanford’s past marital infidelities dogged him throughout the campaign in both the primary and general election, and much of the race focused on his personal life. But he managed to convince enough voters in the heavily Republican district that his fiscally conservative record was enough to support him over Colbert Busch, whom he sought to tie to the national Democratic Party.

Sanford’s return to Congress won’t thrill some House Republicans. He owes nothing to party leaders after receiving no support in his campaign, and his hard-line fiscal conservatism has led to antagonistic relationships with other Republicans both during his first stint in Congress and while he was governor.

Many members of the South Carolina delegation pointedly refused to discuss whether they supported him following the trespassing allegations against Sanford, and two South Carolina Republicans had endorsed one of his primary opponents.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) gave a lukewarm response on Tuesday when asked if he’d welcome Sanford back to the House.

“The voters of First District of South Carolina will make their decision, and just like anyone of us or any of the 435 members of Congress, we don't get to choose who they are. Their electorate gets to decide, so we'll see what the outcome is today,” he said.

The race’s outcome was far from certain heading into Election Day. Recent polling had found a dead heat, and accusations from Sanford’s ex-wife that he’d repeatedly trespassed at her home had put him on the defensive.

Colbert Busch ran a solid campaign, raising huge sums of money with help from the national Democratic Party and steering toward the center in an attempt to win over independent voters unhappy with Sanford’s past. But she couldn’t pull off a win in a district Mitt Romney won by 18 percentage points in 2012.

Sanford’s return to elected office was inconceivable just months ago. The former governor had gone from being a presidential hopeful to the butt of late-night jokes in 2009 when he was caught having an affair with an Argentinian woman after telling staff that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. But when then-Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) was appointed to the Senate earlier this year, he saw an opening to win back his old House seat, which he’d held from 1995-2000.

--This report was originally published at 8:36 p.m. and last updated at 9:33 p.m.