S.C. Voters Confer Comeback Title On Mark Sanford

Former Republican Governor Mark Sanford reclaimed his political career Tuesday night, winning the South Carolina congressional seat he once held. He defeated Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch in a special election.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Many a politician suffers a setback and recovers. Rarely does a politician endure a scandal and nationwide mockery on the scale of Mark Sanford and still recover.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Sanford did. South Carolina's former governor defeated Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch in a special election for Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

REPRESENTATIVE-ELECT MARK SANFORD: Some guy came up to me the other day. He said: You look a lot like Lazarus.

INSKEEP: Lazarus is described in the Bible as a man Jesus brought back from the dead. NPR's Kathy Lohr reports on Sanford's political resurrection.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: In his victory speech, Sanford thanked what he called a God of second chances for regaining the congressional seat he first won in the 1990s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SANFORD: I just want to acknowledge a God not just of second chances, but third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eight chances because that is the reality of our shared humanity.

LOHR: The campaign focused on Sanford's character - not just the 2009 scandal when he left the country to have an affair, but said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. Recently, the former governor's ex-wife Jenny accused him of trespassing at her home. During the campaign, Sanford said he'd done a lot of soul-searching, and he acknowledged that again last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SANFORD: If it was just about market-based ideas and limited government, this campaign would have been easily won a long time ago, but I had deficiencies that are well-chronicled, as a candidate. And at the end of the day, I was carried across the threshold, if you will, by an incredible team of volunteers that are represented in this room, and well beyond this room.

LOHR: The National Republicans withdrew their support for Sanford, but he refocused the campaign on national Democratic groups that spent nearly $1 million on behalf of Elizabeth Colbert Busch. Sanford even campaigned with a cardboard cutout of former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and tried to tie his opponent to liberals in Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

ELIZABETH COLBERT BUSCH: Hi, everyone. Thank you for being here tonight. Thank you.

LOHR: In her concession speech, Colbert Busch - businesswoman and sister of comedian Stephen Colbert - said she knew the race would be an uphill climb.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

BUSCH: The people have spoken, and I respect their decision. No, I respect their decision. This is the beauty of our country. I respect their decision.

LOHR: Mitt Romney won this district by 18 points last year, and voters here haven't elected a Democrat in more than three decades. In the end, they picked Sanford again.

ROBERT OLDENDICK: It's South Carolina, which means the Republican identification trumps everything.

LOHR: Robert Oldendick is a political science professor at the University of South Carolina. He says Sanford's personal problems did affect the race, but not enough for voters to elect a Democrat.

OLDENDICK: It kind of sent the message that this is not our favorite candidate. We're kind of holding our nose as we go into the booth here. But when it comes to that person in Congress who's going to represent our views, we'd much rather have Mark Sanford.

LOHR: The former governor appears in court tomorrow to answer his ex-wife's trespassing complaint. In a statement, the National Republicans congratulate Sanford and say the results demonstrate how devastating the policy of the president and Pelosi are for House Democrats in 2014. But National Democrats say the fact that this deeply Republican district was competitive is a testament to the strength of Colbert Busch and a warning that the GOP will have to defend this seat again next year.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News.

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