Sanford set for political comeback trail

Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) is hoping to accomplish what only a few years ago seemed unthinkable: making a triumphant return to elected office by winning back his old seat in the House.

But a number of local South Carolina Republicans are gearing up to prevent his political comeback.

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Sanford, once a rising star in the GOP, saw his career unravel when he admitted to an affair with an Argentine woman in 2009 after initially claiming he was off hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Now a series of unexpected events have made him the unlikely front-runner in a still-forming field to fill the former House seat of Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.).

Sanford’s near-universal name recognition, his reputation for fundraising prowess, a staunchly conservative fiscal record and the potential for a crowded field could make him tough to beat.

Sanford is expected to announce whether he plans to run for his old House seat later this week — and all signs point toward him getting in.

While there are a number of other credible candidates jumping into the race, none are nearly as well-known as Sanford.

With a fast-approaching early-spring election, it might be hard for some candidates to raise enough money to gain attention from voters.

Most South Carolina Republicans expect Sanford’s name recognition to carry him through an initial March 19 vote and into a GOP runoff election in early April.

The true test will be whether the opponent who makes it into that runoff against Sanford will have the money and name identification to beat him in a two-week sprint to the final vote on April 2.

Whoever wins the primary runoff election is all but guaranteed to win the House seat in the heavily Republican district.

“The way the [affair] announcement was handled was toxic, sad and disappointing. But Sanford has a conservative voting record, is a known commodity, has some star power and the ability to be a serious fundraiser,” said former South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson, who ran the party during both of Sanford’s gubernatorial runs.

While South Carolina is socially conservative, its GOP voters have shown they’re willing to overlook personal issues. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina GOP presidential primary last year despite his long history of marital infidelity.

Sanford has more than $120,000 in an old congressional campaign account, from when he held the Charleston-based congressional district from 1994 to 2000.

He can use that money to launch the race, and has a deep fundraising network in the state.

He also has more than $1 million in a gubernatorial campaign account. While he can’t directly spend that money, Sanford could ask old donors to send new checks that would allow him to transfer those funds.

A number of other Republicans plan to be in the primary when the filing officially opens on Jan. 18.

They include South Carolina state Sen. Larry Grooms (R), whose state Senate district covers 40 percent of the congressional district and who is well-liked by both social and fiscal conservatives.

The well-respected state Rep. Chip Limehouse (R) could also run. Limehouse has a reputation for being more of an establishment Republican, which could hurt him in a low-turnout GOP primary.

Other candidates include high school teacher Teddy Turner, the son of CNN owner Ted Turner. He has brought a former Sanford spokesman to help with his campaign.

Former state Sen. John Kuhn (R) is also running, and told The Hill he’d spend as much as $500,00 to self-fund his campaign.

A source close to Sanford said that his campaign would focus on the former governor’s fiscal conservatism.

“He’s been standing up to party leaders regardless of party his whole career. He was the most fiscally conservative governor in the country. The issues being discussed now, he’s spent his entire political career fighting for, and that puts the other guys in the tough position of having to say ‘Me too,’ ” the Sanford ally said.

All of the candidates plan to position themselves as the anti-Sanford option, and indicated that they wouldn’t just attack him on his personal issues, but also hit him for using official resources for his own benefit.

Sanford had to pay $75,000 in penalties for using his official state plane for personal travel. That was the highest ethics penalty in the state’s history.

“The people of the 1st district, they know his record. They know what he did as governor and they also know how his term as governor ended,” Grooms told The Hill.

“I’m the fiscal conservative without all the baggage. I’m the alternative without any of the baggage.”

Kuhn was even more direct.

“The problem is he’s been unethical. That’s not good when you’ve operated that way as a governor,” he told The Hill.

“I think that there are a number of people in South Carolina who were severely disappointed in him who had a lot of high hopes [he dashed] with the plane issues, telling the state of South Carolina he’s [hiking] on the Appalachian Trail when he’s not, that he believes in congressional term limits and now he’s running again. That’s just unethical.”

Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) said a number of Charleston-area conservative activists in recent days had told him that Sanford would likely make the runoff — and whether he wins that race depends on how conservative his opponent is, arguing that Grooms would stand the best chance.

“These folks who are voting are hardcore primary voters, and if it’s Mark versus a moderate they’ll overlook his indiscretions,” he said. “If it’s Mark versus a fiscal conservative they’ll vote for the other guy.”

“Everybody wants to get in the runoff with him,” said a consultant to one candidate who asked not to be named in order to discuss strategy candidly.

“Everybody’s playing for second place, and in a sprint like this, I don’t think anybody will lay a glove on him in the first round of the primary.”

The Sanford ally didn’t want to publicly weigh in on how the campaign might respond to attacks on either the affair or other ethics issues. But

Sanford has responded in the past to questions about his personal life by apologizing, asking for forgiveness and pivoting back to fiscal issues — something he’s likely to repeat in the campaign.

--This report was updated on Jan. 16 at 8:50 p.m.