Lost in the talk of former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s attempted political comeback after an extramarital affair is his bid to return to the job which he previously pledged to leave.
While Sanford broke his marriage vows, even term limit supporters say he is not breaking his pledge to only serve three terms in the House, as he tries again for the seat he held more than a decade ago.
Three years ago, the Republican politician that many thought could end up in the White House saw his career crash, as Sanford tearfully admitted an extramarital affair with an Argentine woman. His earlier explanation for his absence from the state — hiking along the Appalachian Trail — became a euphemism for obfuscation.
On Tuesday, Sanford — older, divorced, and talking about repentance — took the first step on the comeback trail. The man whose background as “former governor” was almost always preceded in the media by the term “disgraced,” topped a field of nearly a dozen fellow Republicans vying for the 1st District U.S. House seat relinquished by Republican Tim Scott when he was appointed to the Senate.
Sanford actually drew a larger than expected 37 percent of the vote, with two opponents still arguing over who placed second and thus qualify for the Republican run-off against Sanford April 2.
Should Sanford emerge triumphant from the run-off, he will be a strong favorite in the special election later this year against Democrat Elizabeth Busch, sister of TV comedian Stephen Colbert.
The district is the same seat that Sanford first won in 1994, the year that House Republicans nationalized the congressional races with the Contract with America, a ten-point policy roadmap.
One of the platforms of the contract was congressional term limits. Sanford pledged that he would limit himself to three two-year terms in the House when running in 1994, and followed through on his pledge by declining to run for a fourth term in 2000.
Even though Sanford is now seeking his fourth term, term-limit proponents credit him for helping put term limits on the map.
“Mark was an example for many because he ran on term limits and kept his word," Paul Jacobs, then-president of U.S. Term Limits, told me shortly after Sanford stepped down in 2000.
Jacobs had come to my office to give me a copy of Sanford’s pro-term limits book, “The Trust Committed to Me,” which had just been published and featured a forward by nationally syndicated columnist Bob Novak.
So what does the group that always hailed Sanford as a hero for their cause think of him now?
“Sanford was an important figure in the term-limits movement and, in fact, still is,” Philip Blumel, current U.S. Term Limits president, told me after Sanford’s strong primary showing March 19.
As to whether the South Carolinian is going back on his term-limits position by running for Congress again, Blumel replied: “No, remember our purpose is to break the cycle of incumbency, where incumbents keep getting re-elected automatically. In a seniority-based system, this makes change nearly impossible.”
“But Sanford kept his promise, went back to do other things besides Congress, and is now running as a non-incumbent,” Blumel said. “He does not have the power of the incumbency behind him and, in fact, he has some problems such as his divorce” from wife Jenny.
Blumel went on to point out that U.S. Term Limits no longer asks candidates to limit their own tenure in Congress, but to sign a pledge vowing to support legislation that would limit the terms of House members to three two-year terms and U.S. senators to two six-year terms.
The issue is as popular as ever at the ballot box,” said Blumel, citing local and statewide victories across the country in 2012.
As to whether Mark Sanford is as “popular as ever” will be soon be determined by voters in South Carolina’s 1st District.
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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