Politics

04.18.13

Mark Sanford Ditched by NRCC, but Counting Him Out Would Be Unwise

By dropping Sanford over accusations from his ex-wife, the National Republican Campaign Committee compounded its candidate’s problems. But he may yet pull off a congressional win, says John Avlon.

Leave it to the National Republican Congressional Committee to take a bad situation and make it worse.

After the unwelcome revelation that former South Carolina governor and GOP congressional nominee Mark Sanford has been accused of trespassing by his ex-wife, Jenny, national Republicans decided to pull the plug on funding for his campaign in advance of the May 7 general election.

The move might seem like a concession to common decency—until one considers the facts on the ground. Court documents state that the incident occurred Feb. 3, the night of the Super Bowl. According to a statement belatedly released by his campaign, Mark Sanford had, very unwisely, decided to watch the game with his 14-year-old son at their former family beach house while his ex-wife was out of town visiting another son. The decision was perhaps a sign of “rules don’t apply to me” syndrome and definitely in violation of their divorce agreement. But it is not exactly the stalking scenario that immediately came to mind when the court documents initially were made public Tuesday night.

With the leaked documents came a bevy of other accusations, designed to take the wind out of Sanford’s sails, including court documents obtained by The Washington Post in which Jenny Sanford accuses her ex-husband of violating the terms of agreement by having their sons improperly visit the Sanford family plantation, insufficiently insuring the property, and being late on a tuition payment. The accusations might seem relatively small, but the overall effect could be significant, an intended political death of a thousand cuts.

No doubt, the folks at the NRCC thought that by abruptly cutting off funding for Sanford, they might be able to change the buzz and close the gender gap as part of the vaunted GOP rebranding. After all, since the affair that ended his governorship, Mark Sanford isn’t exactly a family-values poster boy. But their decision is a shortsighted bit of tokenism.

My folks have lived in Charleston, S.C., for more than two decades and—full disclosure—I will co-moderate the April 29 Patch/SCRN debate at the Citadel. Stereotypes of the state and the 1st District fall apart upon closer inspection, in ways that shake up the race for both parties.

First, as the rise of Democratic nominee Elizabeth Colbert Busch indicates, Charleston and the surrounding counties are not politically monochrome—it is growing, vibrant, and increasingly diverse. While the political character of the district is decidedly center-right, Obama won Charleston County in 2008 and 2012. Simply playing to the social-conservative base is no guarantee of victory anymore.

An equally large consideration for locals will be whether they want to give Nancy Pelosi an additional vote in the House.

Second, Mark Sanford isn’t Anthony Weiner. I know it’s tempting to tar them with the same brush, but Sanford’s sin was not serial adultery or creepy self-photography, and his proclivities fell well short of the Southern-pol variety. (See former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards for a classic example.) In addition, Sanford is an uncommonly earnest politician who can say with some credibility that the issues he has been obsessively talking about since he was first elected to Congress in 1994—the dangers of deficit and debt—have finally come to the forefront of national debate, for better or worse.

South Carolinians have largely made up their minds about Sanford’s serious moral failing and the statewide embarrassment it created. There’s no doubt that he will have a hard time winning the women’s vote—and that could make all the difference in this election. But an equally large consideration for locals will be whether they want to give Nancy Pelosi an additional vote in the House.

These subtleties are easily missed from the national perspective and, apparently, inside the rarefied air of the NRCC. Its rash action has compounded its candidate’s problems and extended the story. If the GOP really wants to change its brand and reach out to women, it should look at its platform policies and existing congressional standard-bearers like Louie Gohmert, Steve King, Steve Stockman, and Paul Broun rather than reflexively abandoning Sanford and hoping that all will be forgiven in one fell swoop.

But in the short run, the damage is done. Now the estimable Cook Report has moved the race from Lean Republican to a Toss-Up. Polls show that Colbert Busch enjoys a narrow lead over Sanford that might grow in the absence of NRCC cash, especially because the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is taking this race seriously and is unlikely to spare any expense. Overheated Washington parlor talk about Texas turning from red to blue will be eclipsed if the 1st District of South Carolina votes Democratic.

What we have here is a competitive congressional race in a district that hasn’t elected a Democrat to Congress since the early years of the Reagan era. That itself is invigorating, and Colbert Busch has already proved herself a capable, engaging candidate with a will to win. But even without the NRCC, counting Sanford out is a sucker’s bet. Win or lose, he’ll be due in court to answer the charges May 9—either as the incoming congressman or on the heels of his first electoral defeat.