COLUMBIA — When Mark Sanford walked out of the governor’s mansion in 2011, he had been censured by the Legislature over state travel expenses he used for an affair with an Argentine woman, had paid the largest ethics fine ever in South Carolina and faced a voting public that had become disillusioned with the one-time rising star.
His conservative fiscal credentials were still intact though, and now the 52-year-old Republican is weighing a bid for the congressional seat he once held. The opening comes because 1st District Rep. Tim Scott was appointed to fill the remaining two years of Sen. Jim DeMint’s seat.
The two-term governor wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press late Saturday: “To answer your question, yes, the accounts are accurate.” he promised “further conversation on all this” later.
The two-term governor was seen as a possible contender for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination before he vanished for five days in 2009. Reporters were told he was hiking the Appalachian Trail, but he later tearfully acknowledged he was visiting his mistress. The two were engaged earlier this year.
Scott, in an interview airing Sunday on CBS’ Face the Nation, said he thinks there might be 25 or 30 candidates running for the seat. Candidates must file by the end of January. Primaries will be held in March, with the general election in May.
Sanford knows the 1st District well. Elected in 1994, he served three terms before voters elected him governor in 2002 and again in 2006.
For some, Sanford’s fiscal record is what’s important. Sanford is known as a libertarian-leaning ideologue who railed against spending and bucked Republican Party leaders before anyone 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, the vice chairwoman of the Charleston Tea Party, though she noted she’ll wait to see the entire field before throwing her support behind a candidate.
Sanford attracted wide interest in spring 2009, when he opposed using Obama administration stimulus money in South Carolina. He said it was irresponsible spending the nation could not afford.
His own party fought him on the issue for months. The governor even sued his own attorney general to block the cash from being used in struggling schools. In the end, Sanford lost, but not before he had burnished his conservative credentials and captured considerable national attention.
Name recognition and money would be two things he could bring to the race – both important because of the short campaign season and wide-open field. Sanford has $1.2 million left in his state campaign coffers. Still, the question remains whether voters are ready to welcome him back.
“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 for bringing “ridicule, dishonor, disgrace and shame” to himself and the state. 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.
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. He 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.”
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 might 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.”