CHARLESTON, S.C. — Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford advanced Tuesday to a runoff in the Republican contest for an open congressional seat, taking a step toward reviving a political career that was derailed by an extramarital affair while he was governor.
“Are you ready to change things in Washington?” Sanford, flanked by his four sons, asked a boisterous crowd at a restaurant in Charleston’s historic district. “I’m incredibly humbled by the outpouring of support we have seen tonight.”
With all precincts reporting, unofficial results show Sanford received about 37 percent of the vote in the southern coastal district. It was unclear who he would face in the April 2 GOP runoff.
Former Charleston County councilman Curtis Bostic held a slim lead over state Sen. Larry Grooms for second place. But the margin is so narrow, less than one percent, that it will trigger an automatic recount. Teddy Turner, the son of media mogul Ted Turner, trailed Bostic and Grooms.
The eventual Republican candidate will square off in the May 7 general election against Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert. She won the Democratic primary for the seat, handily defeating perennial candidate Ben Frasier.
“My pledge is to you. You are my only cause. I will fight to improve your lives and the lives of your children,” Colbert Busch told supporters across town.
Tuesday was Sanford’s first run for office since a 2009 scandal in which he acknowledged an affair. After disappearing and telling his staff he was out hiking the Appalachian Trail, he returned to the state to reveal that he was in Argentina with a woman he later became engaged to after divorcing his wife, Jenny. She briefly weighed a bid for the congressional seat herself but decided against it.
Mark Sanford, who vied against 15 other Republican candidates on Tuesday, said it was “a treat and a blessing” to be back on the ballot.
The 1st Congressional District seat became vacant last year when Republican Gov. Nikki Haley appointed then-U.S. Rep. Tim Scott to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Republican Jim DeMint, who resigned to head The Heritage Foundation.
Wearing a gray windbreaker, Sanford walked alone up the street and up a flight of stairs to the building with the polling place in Charleston’s historic district. He represented the district in Congress from 1994 to 2000, before he was elected governor.
“Casting your vote wasn’t that hard,” he laughed, but then added, “It’s a very significant race for me in a lot of different ways.”
Sanford said after voting that life can be a series of course corrections.
“We all hope for a second chance. I believe in a God of second chances,” Sanford said. “On a professional level, we have had a couple of months to talk about the issues. In that regard it has been a treat and a blessing.”
Sanford, who spent months apologizing to groups around the state after he revealed his affair, said when he announced for his old congressional seat that the apology tour was over. Known for his frugality as both a congressman and governor, he has been spending the campaign talking about getting the nation’s fiscal house in order.
With Sanford’s campaign war chest and name recognition, Tuesday’s race was largely for second place.
Minutes before Sanford voted, state Rep. Chip Limehouse cast his ballot at the same polling place. Limehouse, who spent almost $500,000 on the race, said he was sure Sanford would make the runoff and hoped he would be in second place.
“Purely by name ID, the governor has an advantage going into today. I’m not sure that goes past today,” he said.
Before finishing fourth, Turner was optimistic after voting at an armory in nearby Mount Pleasant.
“This race has been exciting all along because we started at zero,” said Turner, making his first run for political office. “We have made our way as high as you can go in this race because you’re not going to pass Sanford in the primary.”
For Colbert Busch, the race was the fulfillment of a dream she has had since a young child.
“What an incredible opportunity. God bless America that we can do this,” she said earlier Tuesday, adding that if she won, she would have two weeks to concentrate on the campaign while the Republicans in the runoff battle each other. “That is a real advantage.”
Turnout was low, as expected in a special primary.