WASHINGTON — I think I’ve figured it out. Republicans must be staging some kind of fiendishly clever plot to lure Democrats into a false sense of security.

That’s the only possible explanation for some of the weirdness we’re seeing and hearing from the GOP. The party must be waiting to come out with its real candidates and policy positions at a moment when unsuspecting Democrats are in the vulnerable position of being doubled over with laughter.

Why else, except for the entertainment value, would the party nominate former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford — he of Appalachian Trail fame, or infamy — in next month’s special election to fill a vacant seat in Congress?

Sanford, you will recall, made news in 2009 when he went missing for a week, which is rarely a good idea for a sitting governor. Upon reappearing, he acknowledged he hadn’t been hiking in the mountains but rather visiting his mistress in Argentina, which is never a good idea for a sitting governor, especially one who is married and preaches sanctimoniously about family values.

Sanford’s wife Jenny refused to play the role of dutiful spouse, basically telling interviewers that her husband was, in fact, a heel; they divorced the following year. After his term ended in 2011, he went slinking into the wilderness. But a toppling of political dominoes — former Sen. Jim DeMint resigned, then-Rep. Tim Scott was appointed to replace him, Scott’s seat in the House thus had to be filled in a special election — gave Sanford the opening for a comeback.

Last month, Sanford finished first in the GOP primary against a weak field. This week, he won a runoff. Since South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District is solidly Republican, Sanford’s victory on May 7 should be a foregone conclusion. Even the fact that Democrats are running an unusually viable candidate — Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of late-night satirist Stephen Colbert — ought to make little difference. But the GOP establishment is worried.

So far, it appears that Sanford is less interested in victory than personal redemption. He had the nerve to ask Jenny Sanford to manage his campaign; she of course declined. As he gave his victory speech after Tuesday’s runoff, his fiancee — Maria Belen Chapur, the former mistress who lives in Buenos Aires — stood behind him. If Sanford ends up making this contest a referendum on his personal life, some loyal Republicans may hold their noses as they vote for him. Others will just stay home.

Republicans are also trying their best to lose a governorship — in Virginia — that could be theirs for the taking.

The Democratic candidate, longtime party fundraiser and operative Terry McAuliffe, has always shown more talent as a kingmaker than as a candidate. But he’s fortunate to have as his opponent Ken Cuccinelli, the commonwealth’s loony-bin attorney general. Describing Cuccinelli’s views as “far right” is like calling Usain Bolt “reasonably fast.”

At the moment, Cuccinelli is challenging an appeals court decision that struck down Virginia’s sodomy law, which sought to restrict sex acts between any two people, including married couples. The Supreme Court ruled such laws unconstitutional 10 years ago, so the appeals court really had no choice. But Cuccinelli is appealing anyway.

When he was campaigning for attorney general, Cuccinelli refused to endorse his Republican predecessor’s policy of nondiscrimination against gays and lesbians. “My view is that homosexual acts, not homosexuality, but homosexual acts are wrong,” he said at the time. “They’re intrinsically wrong. … They don’t comport with natural law.”

Cuccinelli has also tried his best to halt all abortions, launched what looked like a witch hunt against climate-change scientists, and generally pursued an ultra-conservative agenda with chilling gusto. Virginia has voted twice for President Obama; I’ll admit I was surprised when Cuccinelli won statewide office in 2009, even though the attorney general’s authority is limited. I’ll be really surprised if Virginians put him in the governor’s mansion, giving him the whole state as a sandbox.

You’d think the national GOP would try to avoid potential giveaways like these. But leading Republicans are too busy tying themselves in knots over issues that much of the country considers settled and done with — gay marriage, immigration reform, background checks for gun purchases, a balanced approach to debt reduction.

A party can be out of step on any of these issues and still win elections. But on all of them? I’m telling you, this has got to be some kind of trick.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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