COLUMBIA, S.C. – Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who left public life two years ago after mysteriously disappearing to visit his then-mistress in Argentina, is poised to re-enter the political arena.
Acknowledging reports that he is seriously weighing a congressional bid for the seat he once held, Sanford wrote in an email late Saturday: “To answer your question, yes the accounts are accurate.” Sanford promised “further conversation on all this” at a later date.
The two-term governor was a rising Republican political star before he vanished from South Carolina for five days in 2009. Reporters were told he was hiking the Appalachian Trail, but he later tearfully acknowledged he was visiting Maria Belen Chapur, a woman he called his soul mate at a news conference announcing his affair. The two were engaged earlier this year.
The opening for Sanford comes after Rep. Tim Scott was appointed to fill the remaining two years of Sen. Jim DeMint’s seat. DeMint announced earlier this month he was resigning.
News that Sanford, 52, may be interested in the seat comes days after his ex-wife, Jenny, appeared to be dipping her toe into the state’s political waters.
She was reportedly on Gov. Nikki Haley’s short list of candidates to fill the seat that went to Scott. Jenny Sanford later said she would think about a run for Scott’s seat representing the coastal 1st Congressional District, the seat her ex-husband is now considering.
“I’d be crazy not to look at the race a little bit,” she said Tuesday, before reports about Mark Sanford surfaced.
State Republicans said Scott plans to submit his letter of resignation from the House on Jan. 2, triggering a process of candidate filing and primaries leading up to a special election in May.
Mark Sanford knows the 1st District well. Elected to the seat in 1994 – Jenny Sanford managed his first campaign and was a close adviser for most of his career – he served three terms before voters elected him governor in 2002.
The former governor would bring name recognition and money to the race – two things especially important due to the short campaign season and wide-open field.
Whether voters are ready to welcome Sanford back to politics is another issue.
“It’s absolutely absurd. He just has so much baggage. He was such an embarrassment to the state, we don’t need that,” said Gloria Day, a retired attorney in Charleston.
He avoided impeachment but was censured by the Legislature. He also had to pay more than $70,000 in ethics fines – still the largest in state history – after AP investigations raised questions about his use of state, private and commercial aircraft.
Others said Sanford’s fiscal record is what’s important, and Sanford is known as a libertarian-leaning ideologue who railed against spending and bucked Republican Party leaders before anyone even coined the tea party movement.
“Mark Sanford is a reliable fiscal conservative so I, like many conservatives, would be delighted to see him in the race,” said Joanne Jones, vice chairman of the Charleston Tea Party, though she noted she’ll wait to see the entire field before throwing her support behind a candidate.
Scott will be sworn in Jan. 3 to replace DeMint, who announced his resignation earlier this month to lead The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Scott, who would have to seek election in 2014, will become the state’s first black U.S. senator and the first black Republican U.S. senator from the South since Reconstruction.
Candidates for Scott’s seat must file by the end of January. Primaries will be held in March, with the general election in May.
State GOP Chairman Chad Connelly said as of Friday, 14 Republicans had expressed interest.
“Gov. Sanford getting in would certainly alter the dynamics. That list would go down significantly,” he said.
Based on name recognition alone, Sanford’s chances would be good in a runoff, he said.
Sanford has $1.2 million left in his state campaign coffers.
John Dietz of Daniel Island said the affair wouldn’t affect his vote.
“He said he found his soul mate, and at one point in my life that’s exactly how I felt. I empathized,” said Dietz, a retiree who characterizes himself as a moderate.
Dietz said he was disappointed that Sanford could not work with his fellow Republicans in the Legislature.
“I did not necessarily agree with a lot of things he did politically,” he said. “I’m very much neutral at this point.”
Retired Presbyterian minister Dick Giffen of Mount Pleasant said he wouldn’t support Sanford, but added that it was unrelated to the affair.
“He wasn’t able to bring people together and get action done,” Giffen said. “He didn’t produce anything. ... I really wasn’t impressed with him.”
Sanford’s contentious relationship with legislators seemed to worsen with each year of his tenure.
But longtime Republican activist and donor John Rainey, who convinced Sanford to run for governor after leaving Congress, said Sanford’s last six months in office, following his tearful press conference, were his most effective.
Rainey said he hopes Sanford re-enters politics.
“He’s finally learned how to do it. Mark now understands the necessity of and art of compromise. It’s not my way or the highway,” said Rainey, who was chairman of the Board of Economic Advisors during Sanford’s tenure.
Sanford’s engagement to Chapur may improve his standing with voters.
“Think of all that’s happened since 2009. That’s old news,” said Rainey, rattling off a list of political scandals. “Especially in the South, we’re about redemption. I don’t think he’s got a problem.”