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MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. -- Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford defeated Democratic businesswoman Elizabeth Colbert Busch in a special House election for South Carolina's first congressional district, despite an expansive effort among Democrats to turn the district blue for the first time in more than 30 years.
The seat, which was left open when Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, named former Republican Rep. Tim Scott to replace outgoing Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, will remain in GOP hands. Throughout the campaign, the seat appeared closer to going Democratic than at any time in the past three decades.
Sanford, a candidate plagued by scandal after he admitted using public funds to leave the country to visit an Argentine mistress while governor in 2009, defeated 15 Republicans earlier this year to secure the party nomination. Aided by running in a solidly Republican district, Sanford overcame his past by arguing that the race was a referendum on President Barack Obama's policies, and that a vote for Colbert Busch would be synonymous with support for liberal Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Surrounded by campaign staff, supporters and family at a restaurant here Tuesday night, Sanford acknowledged that his past flaws and emphasized the role that grace played in relaunching his political career.
"I've talked a lot about grace over the course of this campaign. And until you've experienced human grace as a reflection of God's grace, I don't think you really get it and I didn't get it before. I get it in a way that I never have before and I want to publicly acknowledge God's role in this. Not that he said, You're it, but what he said was, not that you will win but that you will learn," Sanford said. "I just want to acknowledge a God not just of second chances, but of third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth chances, because that is a reality of our shared humanity. I also want to say this: I am one imperfect man saved by God's grace, but one who has a conviction on the importance of doing something about the spending in Washington, D.C."
Because of Sanford's blemished past, Democrats saw a rare opportunity to take control of the seat and poured significant resources into the effort. Had they been successful, the victory would have been an important symbolic victory that would have provided momentum for Democrats working to rebuild their majority in the House. The party nominated Colbert Busch, a centrist Democrat and the sister of celebrity comedian Stephen Colbert.
While Democratic outside groups united around Colbert Busch, the National Republican Congressional Committee said last month that they would not help Sanford with paid television ads, a move that placed increased pressure on the state Republican Party.
The official reason the NRCC gave for not spending on the race was that Sanford didn't need their help, but the timing of the announcement--it came shortly after the Associated Press reported that Sanford's ex-wife had charged him with trespassing on her property in January--suggested that congressional Republicans had largely abandoned his effort. Sanford is scheduled to appear in court on Thursday to testify about the trespassing charges, one of perhaps many forthcoming embarrassing episodes for House Republicans as he continues to deal with his past transgressions.
Some Republicans also figured that even if Sanford lost this week, they could raise the money and support around a new candidate and defeat Colbert Busch in November 2013 anyway. The decision by national Republicans to stay out of the race could have one important consequence: Sanford will owe them very little when he arrives in Washington, which provides the lawmaker--already known as a rabble-rouser--even more freedom to call his own shots.
In contrast, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman poured $425,000 on ads during the special election to defeat Sanford. In a statement, DCCC Chairman Steve Israel said that despite the loss, the organization would continue to target Republicans in conservative districts.
"In this deep red Republican district that Mitt Romney won by 18 points, the fact that the Democrat made this competitive is a testament to the strength of Elizabeth Colbert Busch as a candidate and the Republican habit of nominating flawed candidates," Israel said. "Democrats will be aggressive and drive deep into Republican-held territory this cycle to find districts with flawed Republican candidates where we can compete. "Democrats will be aggressive and drive deep into Republican-held territory this cycle to find districts with flawed Republican candidates where we can compete."
By winning the seat, Sanford will be returning to familiar territory: Before his first term as governor, he represented the district in the House from 1995 to 2001.
The extent of his influence in the House in the future, however, remains uncertain. The chamber has become more conservative since he left in 2001, and while he could find a comfortable place among the tea party members of his party, he could also prove trouble for House Republican leaders who seek to unite the caucus.