By E.J. Dionne, Jr.
WASHINGTON—“I want to publicly acknowledge God’s role in all of this,” declared a victorious Mark Sanford as he celebrated an unlikely political rebirth Tuesday night with a sermon praising the Supreme Being and the many “angels” who helped the once-disgraced former governor along the way.
Perhaps the Almighty did inspire those who drew the boundaries of South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District. They packed it with so many Republicans that Sanford was able to engineer a comeback in the polls by debating a flat piece of cardboard bearing the image of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Voters in the Lowcountry may have been weary of a man who made a national spectacle of himself by covering up an affair when he was chief executive and then hanging around in office. But when called to arms against liberals and spending and big government, they were prepared to forget Sanford’s hike on the Appalachian Trail, the one that never happened but was his attempt at a false alibi for being in Argentina to see his lover-now-fiancee.
His Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, tried everything she could to shove party and philosophy out of the voters’ minds and keep them focused on the man they had once loathed and laughed at.
She made herself relatively scarce when it came to campaign appearances and her advertising was out of a Chamber of Commerce promotion. “Elizabeth knows jobs” was the opener on a spot that touted her as a “Charleston businesswoman” and spoke of the importance of math and science—hard to argue with that. She closed by telling voters: “I’m running for Congress to create jobs in South Carolina. That’s what I know.”
What she and her handlers did not know, or hoped wasn’t true, was how deep our regional and partisan divisions are. You can run from ideology but you can’t hide. Ironically, it is Colbert Busch’s brother Stephen Colbert who became one of the era’s most entertaining and astute political satirists by understanding the power of ideology. You might say that Sanford’s whole campaign was drawn from a Stephen Colbert sketch.
And, yes, this was South Carolina. Remember that when Newt Gingrich ran for the Republican presidential nomination last year, he won only two primaries: in his home state of Georgia, and in the state where the Civil War began. It’s funny, by the way, that Sanford’s full-page ad defending his visit to his ex-wife Jenny’s house in violation of a court order referred to the battle of the Alamo but misstated the year it happened as 1863. This would move that fight to the death into the middle of the War of Northern Aggression, as some Southerners still see it. Was this evocative error entirely accidental?
Gingrich has also led what we can politely call a colorful personal life. But he knew that South Carolina was one place where he could argue that Mitt Romney was a kind of crypto-liberal and make it stick. It was the perfect setting for a contest against a Pelosi photo.
In light of all the money the Democrats spent, it’s still remarkable how loyal Republicans were to the man who once represented them. In the end, Colbert Busch ran only five points ahead of President Obama’s 40 percent in the district in 2012. In two of its more conservative counties, Dorchester and Berkeley, she hardly gained anything on Obama’s share.
Democrats insisted as soon as the results were known that Sanford’s triumph will prove to be an embarrassment to congressional Republicans. It will be, at least for a while, especially since the newly minted House member has to show up in court Thursday on his wife’s trespassing charge. Jesse Ferguson, the spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was quick to note that there are 119 Republican incumbents in districts more Democratic than South Carolina’s 1st. Sanford’s win, he insisted, does not tell us much about the 2014 midterm elections.
That’s probably right. But it does say a great deal about America in 2013. God may well have moved Sanford to turn his life around and to run a scrappy campaign without any assistance from the big honchos in Washington. But his resurrection was a phenomenon not of the next world but of this one—of a country so torn by party dogma that an imaginary walk along the Appalachian Trail counts for little when compared with the chance to beat the other guys, even when they’re made out of cardboard.
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group