Mark Sanford’s remarkable victory

 

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.

© 2013, Slate

Read more From Our Inbox stories from the Miami Herald

  • ‘Poor doors’ inevitable in Manhattan real estate

    Everybody’s mad about the “poor door.” This is the name critics have bestowed upon the separate entrance for the affordable-housing units at a planned new luxury building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Those who pay market rates would have access to extra amenities – gym, pool, Hudson River views – as well as their own doors and lobby.

  • 3 ideas from Paul Ryan’s poverty plan that liberals can love

    Liberals are used to hating Rep. Paul Ryan.

  • I fought predatory, for-profit schools

    It happened the same way that anyone falls in love: the slow build of excitement, the sheer anticipation of each day propelling you forward, the blind haze of overwhelming joy clouding all reason and logic.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category