Mark Sanford’s long walk has ended. From the South Carolina governor’s office to the Appalachian Trail to Argentina and back, he has returned to win a seat in the House of Representatives. Political victory has redemptive powers and so Sanford now has a chance to write a new chapter in his personal history. Whatever may become of him in Washington, he has already changed the shape of Republican politics in South Carolina. The state that is home to Bob Jones University and where residents still resist removing the Confederate flag from over the state house is now defining the new standard for forgiving personal indiscretions.
Sanford’s history is well known. He left his wife for his Argentine girlfriend while he was governor. South Carolina voters were never in a position to forget his scandalous past. Elizabeth Colbert Busch, Sanford’s opponent, raised it in their sole debate and Sanford’s fiance showed up at his victory party when he won the GOP primary. Sanford’s ex-wife wasn’t off stage during the campaign either, confirming for reporters that her son had been shocked to meet his father’s soul mate for the first time on primary night.
This was not an issue voters could ignore. But Sanford’s gritty campaigning and over-the-top charm helped him recover. He is well known as a committed fiscal hawk. Conservatives think that type of worldview is needed in Washington. Sanford also enjoyed the help of another woman: Nancy Pelosi. Republican voters in the same district that gave Mitt Romney an 18 percentage point victory over President Barack Obama do not like the House minority leader. They couldn’t stomach sending her an ally in Colbert Busch.
This wasn’t the first time the Republican voters of South Carolina put fidelity to party over fidelity to fidelity. In the 2012 Republican primary, voters were reminded of former House speaker Newt Gingrich’s admitted adultery and three marriages. His second wife spoke out just days before the vote. Gingrich won by 12.5 percentage points over the morally pure Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts. He won 45 percent of the evangelical vote, a group that has at times shown more than a passing interest in the morality of public officials. He won 46 percent of those who said that the religious beliefs of a candidate were very or somewhat important.
South Carolina conservatives may still say a candidate’s sins matter, but they aren’t voting that way. In fact, if you weren’t privy to the state’s strong social conservative history, you could almost mistake South Carolinians for city folk — people who vote for experience, policy and political leanings and show a sophisticate’s relativism toward personal moral failings. These days, South Carolinians seem almost Parisian when they enter the voting booth.
The Palmetto state has come a long way since the GOP primary of 2000. The party — particularly in South Carolina — was once defined by a group of social conservatives who were inflexible about sticking to the principles they believed came from the highest authority. In that contest, Texas Gov. George Bush campaigned at Bob Jones University the day after losing the New Hampshire primary to Sen. John McCain. The fundamentalist institution, which still banned interracial dating at the time, was the perfect symbol for Bush’s paean to family values and unbending social conservatism.
Sanford and Gingrich won in South Carolina for political and ideological reasons that trumped family values. A candidate without their experience and name identification could not win with their personal baggage. But the Republican Party is undergoing a discussion about the role of principle in public life. Which principles are worth putting aside for political gain? On issues from immigration to protecting the Second Amendment, politicians like Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, are on the rise for defending principle in the face of the desires of the crowd. In South Carolina that’s still very much the way conservatives see things. Mais pour le moment, quelques principes sont plus importants que d’autres. [But for now, some principles are more important than others.]
John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent.