When Rep. Thomas Flaherty, a Massachusetts Democrat, decided to leave his Boston-area House seat to become transit commissioner of Boston in 1942, there was a surprise entrant in the Democratic primary to succeed him in Congress: James Michael Curley, who had been mayor of Boston for three nonconsecutive terms and governor for one.
People wondered: Wasn’t a House seat beneath a politician of Curley’s stature?
No, for as Jack Beatty explained in his masterful Curley biography, “The Rascal King,” after defeats for the U.S. Senate and governor and widespread rumors of graft and corruption in office, “Curley needed an office he could win.”
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Like Curley, South Carolina’s former two-term governor, Mark Sanford, needs an office he could win this year.
When Republican Rep. Tim Scott was appointed to fill a vacancy in the Senate last year, a special election was called to fill his U.S. House seat in the Palmetto State’s 1st District, which covers the state’s coastal area, including Charleston.
Three years ago Sanford’s career — that many thought could end in the White House — imploded when the governor admitted having an extramarital affair with
an Argentine woman.
Two years after his divorce from the mother of their four sons, Sanford is back. He seems to have found the office he could win — and which he actually held from 1994-2000.
The man who made “hiking along the Appalachian Trail” a euphemism for hiding an affair when he initially claimed that as an excuse for being missing from the governorship, won the Republican nomination for Congress on Tuesday by a resounding 57 percent of the vote.
Next month, Sanford faces a general election against Elizabeth Colbert Busch, a Clemson University administrator and sister of late-night TV comedian Stephen Colbert.
A recent Public Policy Polling survey shows that among district voters, Colbert Busch holds a lead of 2 percentage points over Sanford. That’s impressive in a district that last elected a Democrat to the House in 1978.
Already, national Democratic leaders — many of whom insisted Bill Clinton’s indiscretions were his family’s business and no one else’s — are discovering new ways of injecting Sanford’s personal situation into the race.
“This is the same Mark Sanford who, as governor, disappeared from office and used taxpayer money to visit his mistress,” said Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York in a national fundraising letter on behalf of Colbert Busch.
Republicans historically have rejected rather than embraced candidates with personal troubles such as the South Carolinian.
In June 1964, two days after second wife Happy gave birth to their son Nelson Jr., Nelson Rockefeller narrowly lost the critical Republican presidential primary in California, and with it any chance of the nomination. Voters were reminded that the New York governor had divorced his first wife Mary little over a year earlier and soon remarried.
More recently, however, GOP Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana did admit he had visited a massage parlor and apologized to voters. His wife stood by him and he was easily re-elected in 2010.
So what will state and national Republicans do about their scandal-tarred nominee in South Carolina, who appeared before cheering supporters on Tuesday with María Belén Chapur,
his former mistress and now fiancee?
Almost certainly, they will rally behind him. At the House Republican retreat in January, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon made it clear the national party would back the former governor if he became their nominee.
Pressed as to whether he felt Sanford’s past would not be a problem in the special election, Walden said: “He has to convince local Republicans of that.”
Sanford obviously did that, and led by State GOP Chairman Chad Connelly, Republicans have joined ranks behind their nominee in the special election.
“No one is going to take a walk on Mark Sanford in the 1st District race,” a top Washington lobbyist, who was formerly with the NRCC, told me last week. “If he were to lose, that would mean Obama and the Democrats would have 16 rather than 17 Republican seats to pick up in order to take over the House next year.”
James Michael Curley did win that House race in 1942, and kept it until 1947 when he regained the mayoralty in Boston. He was succeeded in Congress by a 29-year-old Navy veteran named John F. Kennedy.
As to whether Mark Sanford can move on to a higher office after first winning back the House race is questionable. For Sanford and Republicans in general, it may be sufficient that he has found “an office he could win.”
John Gizzi is the former political editor for Human Events, working for the conservative weekly from 1979 to 2013. Gizzi is a recipient of the William A. Rusher Award for Journalistic Excellence, was named Journalist of the Year by the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2002, and has appeared on hundreds of radio and TV talk shows.
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