Sex scandal guy versus Stephen Colbert’s sister

    Reread my headline. Does this sound like a great House race or what?

    Granted, we election junkies are a tad starved for competitive entertainment, this being an off year. But the special House election slated for May 7 should sate our appetite. 

    For starters, it’s in South Carolina, which has mesmerized us politically since 1856, when one of its lawmakers pounded an antislavery senator into unconsciousness. Plus, the election takes place in a rockribbed Republican district that twice rejected Barack Obama by landslide margins – but might be in play for the Democrats on May 7, because the Republican congressional candidate is scandal-scarred Mark Sanford, the former “love guv” who extramaritally canoodled with an Argentianian mistress while on the public dime. 

    Plus, the Democrat is a respected Clemson University administrator, Elisabeth Colbert Busch, whose celebrity brother figures to be a great help in raising lots of money in a truncated time frame. Plus, she has some business chops. The First Congressional District is on the coast, and Busch has long been a fixture in the local maritime industry. Plus, she doesn’t have the baggage of a sex-sinner asking the voters for forgiveness. Which is a major part of Sanford’s campaign shtick.

    It’s arguably amazing that Sanford has made it even this far. In a two-round Republican primary, he managed to sway a conservative electorate. In round one, he got 37 percent of the vote, good enough for the top rung in a multi-candidate field; in round two last night – under state law, a runoff was necessary because he failed to get a majority in round one – he defeated his remaining Republican challenger by tallying 57 percent of the vote. That’s not a particularly impressive haul, not for a guy who has served 14 years as a governor and congressman, but when you consider how many sexual miscreants have been politically destroyed – John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner – Sanford’s walk on the comeback trail seems almost miraculous.

    Almost. Because the Christian conservatism that would seem likely to destroy him – he cheated on his wife, lied about it, and ultimately dumped his wife – is the same strain of conservatism that seems to be saving him.

    Culture of permissiveness

    For wayward southern politicians, it’s actually a great deal. They can stray from the family nest and violate God’s tenets – and then they can go to the voters and seek Christian forgiveness. As a University of South Carolina political science prof remarked the other day, “Forgiveness is written into the DNA of Christianity.” And as another South Carolina academic put it, “We (voters) hope that we are forgiven for our own trespasses. All of us look in the mirror and say, ‘I hope people forgive me for the mistakes I’ve made.”

    No wonder Sanford keeps invoking what he calls “the God of second chances.” Politically speaking, it’s like a get-out-of-jail-free card. His Republican nomination victory last night is proof that southern Christian conservatism fosters its own culture of permissiveness.

    The question now is whether he can complete his comeback, whether Elisabeth Busch is truly a viable challenger. Early polling suggests that indeed she is, but she has yet to be hit with the requisite advertising barrage that will undoubtedly seek to link her to Obama and the national Democrats. And much of that barrage will probably be bankrolled by the national GOP, which can ill afford the public relations disaster of losing a House seat in a crimson-red district. Since the dawn of the modern southern GOP – ushered in by Ronald Reagan 32 years ago – voters in the district have never elected a Democrat.

    But in politics, it’s smart to expect the expected. The share of conservative Christians willing to forgive and elect Sanford is likely to be smaller in the general election, once the Colbert-driven Democrats are factored in. And Busch’s gender could complicate Sanford’s job. Women comprise 55 percent of the district’s registered voters, and early polling shows that nearly six in 10 dislike Sanford (in part because of thew way he treated his spouse). In fact, Hogan Gidley, a former South Carolina GOP leader, said this week that “any political attack on Colbert Busch would be used against Sanford and the party as proof of a perceived ‘war on women.’…we have a huge problem right now with the women vote.”

    And I can’t help remembering what happened to Don Sherwood. He was a Pennsylvania congressman, a three-term family-values Republican in a safe Republican district…until his cover was blown. Turns out, he had an extramarital mistress 35 years his junior. The mistress claimed he tried to choke her while giving her a back rub. She called 911, and then she sued him. Sherwood settled the lawsuit by giving her half a million bucks and incentivizing her to keep quiet until after his 2006 re-election. The coverup didn’t work – he had to ‘fess up publicly about the mistress, though he said he never choked her – and neither did his re-election. Voters in that Republican district threw him out and chose the Democrat.

    But maybe Pennsylvania Republicans are just less forgiving than their South Carolina Christian counterparts. As Mark Sanford marveled last night, “I want to thank my God….There’s an amazing reservoir of human grace out there.” We’ll see in a month whether that reservoir is deep enough.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

    Read more here:

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal