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How Mark Sanford won - in 5 easy steps

By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post

The most common reaction to disgraced former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s victory Tuesday in a Republican runoff for a Charleston-based House seat goes something like this: What the heck?

After all, this is the same Sanford who blew up his political career in 2009 when he disappeared from the Palmetto State for five days, told his gubernatorial staff he was hiking the Appalachian Trail and then acknowledged that he had been in Argentina visiting his mistress. Yes, that really happened. Sanford, who was married and had four boys, stayed in office until his term ended in early 2011. The assumption – from everyone who followed the story – was that Sanford’s political career was over.

And yet, less than four years later, Sanford has emerged as the Republican nominee for the seat he once held and is given at least 50-50 odds of winning the special general election against Democratic nominee Elizabeth Colbert Busch in early May. To top it off, his mistress-and-now-fiancée Maria Belen Chapur was at his side Tuesday night to celebrate his victory over Curtis Bostic in the 1st District GOP runoff.

How did Sanford resurrect his career? Here are five ways.

1 People don’t pay much attention to politics. Yes, Sanford’s extramarital affair was huge news in the state and nationally. But it was also more than three years ago. Most people follow a story for as long as it is shoved in front of their faces by the media and then ignore or forget it in short order. The assumption made by the political class was that the average Joe would hold Sanford’s past conduct against him. But that assumption was based on the idea that people remembered or cared enough to hold it against him. Sanford’s notoriety might even have worked in his favor since everyone in the district knows his name – and in a low-attention primary fight, name ID matters a lot.

2 Sanford turned the race into a referendum on forgiveness. Rather than try to avoid his past, Sanford was open about it. In his first television ad of the race, Sanford sought to turn his past into a strength. “I’ve experienced how none of us go through life without mistakes,” Sanford said in the commercial. “But in their wake we can learn a lot about grace, a God of second chances, and be the better for it.” By framing his infidelity in that light, Sanford made it difficult for any of his Republican opponents to attack him since, if they did, they would be attacking the idea of forgiveness and redemption.

3 Sanford is a talented campaigner. Regardless of what you think of his moral character, Sanford is – and always has been – a very talented candidate. He is quite good on television and has a sort of disarming down-home charm that plays well in the Lowcountry district. Sanford also ran a far better-funded and more professional campaign than his opponents in the GOP primary. As of March 13, Sanford had raised more than $400,000 for the race while his runoff opponent Bostic collected just more than half that. Sanford’s spending edge allowed him to be a continual presence on TV while Bostic struggled to re-gather himself after making the runoff two weeks ago.

4 The 1st district isn’t social conservative territory. If Sanford had been trying to make a political comeback in the Upstate 3rd or 4th congressional districts, he almost certainly would have lost to Bostic. But the 1st District is filled with Republicans who care about fiscal issues but recoil at the harder-edged approach on social issues. Sanford fit that sort of Republican voter like a glove. Bostic, who boasted endorsements from the likes of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and social conservative leader James Dobson, didn’t.

5 Sanford ran as the un-politician. Sanford’s electoral appeal has always been rooted in the perception that he’s not like other politicians. He limited himself to three terms in the House and, when he served as governor, he had an openly hostile relationship with the Republican-controlled state Legislature. In that light, Sanford’s affair – and the public flogging he took for it – fit, in an odd way, into his overall political persona. You can easily imagine a voter thinking: “This guy doesn’t owe anybody anything if he goes to Washington.”

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