Mark Sanford Wins S.C. Runoff, but Colbert Busch Still Blocks His Path to Redemption

Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford signs in before voting in Charleston, S.C., on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Bruce Smith) (National Journal)

Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford will be the Republican nominee on a ballot in his home state for the first time in seven years, after defeating former Charleston County Council member Curtis Bostic in a primary runoff on Tuesday for the state's vacant 1st Congressional District seat.

The Associated Press called the race Tuesday evening with 67 percent of precincts reporting that Sanford had a combined 55 percent of the vote to Bostic's 45 percent.

The win was not unexpected for Sanford, who outraised Bostic more than 15-1 in the pre-runoff period and was able to blanket the airwaves, building on his nearly universal name recognition in the district he represented in Congress for three terms in the 1990s. Bostic, meanwhile, works in the district, but lives just outside its boundaries.

Bostic nevertheless built a strong coalition, drawing heavily on his ties to the evangelical Christian and home-schooling communities, and highlighting his family values in the hopes of attracting voters concerned about the affair that nearly ended Sanford's political career in 2009.

Sanford has come a long way in just the four years since he admitted to having an affair with Argentinian reporter María Belén Chapur, seeming to end a 16-year political career that had him on many short lists for the presidency. In 2009, during his second term as governor, Sanford disappeared for six days, telling his staff, who then passed off the story to the press, that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. As he later revealed in a lengthy, awkward press conference, he had in fact been in Argentina with Chapur, to whom he is now engaged.

Sanford served out the rest of his term, leaving office in 2011, despite a censure by the state House and several failed attempts by the General Assembly to impeach him. He stayed largely out of the public eye until then-Rep. Tim Scott, another Republican, was appointed to the Senate in January, vacating Sanford's old seat.

Though neither Sanford nor Bostic has mentioned the affair directly during the campaign, it has hung over the special election, with Bostic emphasizing his family and Sanford invoking a "God of second chances" in his first television ad and on the campaign trail.

Sanford will go on to face Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the Democratic nominee, in the special election on May 7. Though the district is heavily Republican and has not elected a Democrat since the 1970s, Democrats are optimistic about Colbert Busch's chances, particularly given an internal poll she released on Monday showing her with a marginal lead in a race against Sanford.

Her brother's celebrity doesn't hurt either. Comedian Stephen Colbert has mentioned his sister (who pronounces the T in her surname) on his Comedy Central show and has already held two events for her, helping Colbert Busch keep pace with Sanford in fundraising so far. Colbert, the faux TV pundit, will reportedly hold two more high-priced events for her this month. Colbert Busch will also likely have the help of national Democratic groups eager to start off the next election cycle with a red-state victory.

But Colbert Busch hasn't faced much opposition thus far, sailing to victory in a Democratic primary against an underfunded candidate as Republicans have spent the last three months slowly whittling down a 16-candidate field. With Sanford as their nominee, focus will now shift to Colbert Busch, who has thus far been able to present a largely uncontested image of herself as a fiscally conservative job creator.

That spotlight already began to shift on Monday night, when the Sunlight Foundation reported that Colbert Busch's campaign had wiped more than 500 tweets from her account. Many were innocuous, and Colbert Busch's campaign explained that they were trying to clean up the account to make it easier for voters to find important information. But some of the tweets, including one that indicated her support for same-sex marriage and reproductive choice, represent the difficult balance she'll have to strike over the next five weeks between exciting Democrats in the district and attracting the Republicans and independents she'll need to remain competitive.