The Democratic Ad Hitting Mark Sanford Is Up, and It Is Brutal

It's been a bad week for the South Carolina Republican, who allegedly trespassed at his ex-wife's house and has lost the financial backing of national Republicans.
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Remember when Mark Sanford was hiking on the Appalachian Trail, and you just knew there was some other shoe that was going drop? That's sort of how his congressional campaign has gone, too. He easily dispatched his challengers in a primary and runoff, then sped ahead to the general election, where he faces Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch. But you just knew it couldn't be that easy.

This is the week the wheels came off. First, there was the bizarre revelation that Jenny Sanford had filed a complaint with police about her ex-husband trespassing at her house. (His rather limp excuse: He was trying to watch the Super Bowl with his son.) But it apparently wasn't the first time. She also complains that he has failed to make a mandatory $5,000 contribution to one of their sons' college costs, as well as violating a divorce clause insisting that "no airplanes will be flown at the children" (no one is sure what this means).

All that was enough for the National Republican Congressional Committee to cut loose. Though their statement is cloaked in the language of confidence -- "Mark Sanford has proven he knows what it takes to win elections" -- it looks like jumping ship. That's not an irrational move: Sanford is badly tainted, so the NRCC has little to lose and much to gain by distancing themselves. If he wins, he'll still be with them. If he loses, Colbert Busch will be hard-pressed to win reelection in 2014 in a staunchly red first district (no Democrat has won there since 1978).

To finish off the week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has jumped in with the ad above, and it is brutal. The spot makes the connection to the Appalachian Trial, from the rustic b-roll to the closing line: "Maybe Mark Sanford should just keep walking." But what we've learned in recent years -- see: Bill Clinton -- is that voters are willing to forgive infidelity. So rather than hit him for that, they hit him on issues that are more likely to matter to voters. They note that Sanford not only lied, he also abandoned his office. (This is the intriguing counterpoint to the Anthony Weiner case; while Sanford wins plaudits for his soul-baring press conference admitting his affair, he actually failed to do his job in a way Weiner did not, by leaving the country.) And dealing a blow to Sanford's famous fiscal conservatism, it notes the taxpayer cost of his dalliance. It doesn't do much good to scrimp on your wife's birthday present if your affair costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I'd been bullish on Sanford before this week, but he looks far more precarious with less than three weeks to go before the May 7 election. Analysts like Larry Sabato have moved the race to a toss-up. It's very hard to tell, though: There's very little polling in the district, and things are moving quickly. Colbert Busch can't start measuring drapes yet, but things are certainly looking up for her.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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