Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) cleared the first hurdle in his political comeback bid on Tuesday, finishing ahead of the pack in the GOP primary to fill an open House seat.

The election was the first time the former governor has faced the voters since his fall from grace in 2009, when he lied about and then admitted to an affair with an Argentine woman.


Sanford had 37 percent of the vote in the 16-candidate GOP primary with 100 percent of precincts reporting. The Associated Press has called the race.

Sanford will now face a tougher challenge: a two-week runoff election sprint. His opponent will be either attorney Curtis Bostic (R) or South Carolina state Sen. Larry Grooms (R), who are currently battling for second place and have vote totals in the low teens. Bostic and Grooms finished close enough that an automatic recount will occur on Friday.

The winner of the GOP runoff will face Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch (D), the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert, in the GOP-leaning coastal Carolina race. Colbert Busch has proven to be a strong fundraiser and has some big-name Democrats in her corner, and her brother has promised to work hard on her behalf, making her a formidable candidate against the eventual GOP nominee.

Sanford caught a big break in the election results. Bostic finished less than 500 votes ahead of Grooms, triggering an automatic recount. The eventual recount winner will lose valuable time in what was already an incredibly compacted campaign schedule.

With his two opponents in limbo for a significant portion of the rest of the campaign, Sanford now has a much better opportunity to win the race. Sanford will also be able to use his money advantage to run ads, while the other two have to wait for final results.

If either opponent had edged into the runoff Tuesday night, Sanford could have faced a much tougher challenge. Grooms and Bostic have strongly conservative voting records, making it harder for Sanford to draw an ideological contrast. Some of the other candidates who were defeated in the first round would have given the former governor a much better opportunity to do so.

Grooms told supporters he wouldn't concede if the recount was triggered, according to local reports, and a Grooms spokesman told The Hill that the campaign was "not conceding anything right now."

Still, Sanford's primary victory remains anything but guaranteed, as he could struggle to woo the GOP primary voters who came out to vote against him.

Sanford, once a fast-rising GOP star, short-circuited his political career in 2009 when he disappeared from the state for days. After telling staff he was hiking the Appalachian Trail, Sanford returned and tearfully admitted he was with his Argentine mistress, who is now his fiancé.

The candidate has been on a hard-fought journey to redeem his name, running a political campaign that has been equal parts apology tour and fiscally conservative crusade. Sanford, long known as one of the most hard-line budget hawks in the GOP, has repeatedly stressed his record as governor and in Congress and touted strong ratings from fiscally conservative groups.

This post was last updated at 10:40 p.m.