Sanford victory could spell trouble for House GOP leadership

Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) is heading back to Congress — and that may not be good news for House GOP leadership.

Sanford owes party leaders nothing, as they refused to spend money on his campaign in the closing weeks and held him at arm's length for much of the race. 

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He's also a vocal — and stubborn — fiscal conservative, and will be sworn into the House at a time when GOP leaders are battling to control an unruly conference.

The first potentially awkward moment will come when Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) swears Sanford in, likely in the next few days. 

Boehner on Tuesday morning suggested that he was less than thrilled about Sanford’s potential return to the House. And while the Speaker tweeted out a quick “congrats” to Sanford with the hash-tag jobs, a comment from his spokesman following the results was less than a bear-hug.

“With their votes, the people of South Carolina’s first congressional district have made clear they want Washington focused on policies to rein in government spending, help create jobs, and make America more competitive,” Boehner spokesman Cory Fritz told The Hill via email. “Mr. Sanford will have the opportunity to make a difference for his constituents as a member of the Republican House majority.”



Earlier in the day, Boehner avoided saying Sanford’s name at all when asked if he’d be welcomed back.

“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,” Boehner said at a Tuesday morning press conference.

An added bit of awkwardness: Sanford is due in court on Thursday to face his ex-wife’s accusations of trespassing, which could delay his swearing-in ceremony until next week. Boehner had not selected a time for the swearing-in as of late Tuesday night, according to his office.

“He could be an added voice to the opposition — to those who like to make trouble for the Republican leadership,” GOP strategist Ron Bonjean, a former top House leadership aide, told The Hill. “It'll definitely be a leadership management issue.”

Sanford made it clear in Tuesday night’s victory speech that he wasn’t returning to Washington to make friends — the same approach he took when he was a thorn in the side of GOP leadership during his first stint in Congress in the 1990s, and when he fought tooth-and-nail with the Republican-controlled statehouse during his governorship.

The newly elected congressman said voters had sent 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 continued.

Sanford’s close friend, South Carolina state Sen. Tom Davis (R), was more direct.

“Sorry, NRCC. We won anyway,” he tweeted shortly after the election was called.

Democrats sought to spin their Tuesday loss as a positive, promising to tar House Republicans with Sanford.

“House Republicans’ outreach to women voters now has Mark Sanford as the face,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) said in a statement following Sanford’s win. “Republicans now have to defend him and stand with him until Election Day.”

While it’s likely Sanford and House GOP leaders won’t have a warm and fuzzy relationship, it’s unclear whether he’ll be accepted by House conservatives either. A number have told The Hill in the past few weeks they would be happy to have Sanford’s voting record back in the House — but most refused to discuss whether Sanford would be welcomed into their inner circle.

Many South Carolina House members from the party’s right flank haven’t embraced him yet. Reps. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) and Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) endorsed one of Sanford’s primary opponents. They stayed pointedly silent during the general election, as did Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.).

But Sanford doesn’t need to be embraced by any of his fellow congressmen to talk to reporters or get booked on television, as he showed during his campaign to return to Congress.

Like former Reps. Allen West (R-Fla.) and Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), he can make a lot of noise and could be a prominent face of the party, no matter how isolated he is within the conference.