Mark Sanford. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain)
Mark Sanford’s comeback bid was never so audacious as America’s political gossip columnists would have us believe.
Yes, the conservative Republican once boomed as a presidential prospect, before drawing national headlines in 2009 when it turned out that he had not gone missing on the Appalachian Trail but had instead snuck off to visit a woman friend in Buenos Aires. Yes, revelations about the affair led to his resignation as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, to his being censured by the South Carolina General Assembly after a State Ethics Commission investigation into allegations that he had misused state travel funds and to his divorce from a popular South Carolina politico.
But Sanford had a prominent name, an easy-going style and a carefully crafted message about forgiveness and redemption. He was, as well, an on-message conservative. That got him through a competitive Republican primary and a not-so-tough Republican runoff for his old US House seat, which had come open when Congressman Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, was appointed to the US Senate.
Once he had the Republican nomination, the numbers were on his side.
Even though he stumbled several times in his special-election race against an able and well-financed Democrat, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, Sanford won Tuesday with a solid 54-45 majority. Colbert Busch was competitive. In a district that gave Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney an eighteen-point advantage over President Obama last fall, she came within nine points this spring.
That’s not bad for a Democrat running in a congressional district that, in various incarnations, has been sending Republicans to Washington since 1980.
But Sanford still enjoyed the advantage that most winners of congressional races in the United States have. He was nominee of the party that the district was drawn, with painstaking attention to collecting all the Republican and Republican leaning support that could be found on the South Carolina coast, to support.
Partisan redistricting—not just classic gerrymandering but a variety of structural factors—assures that the vast majority of congressional districts in the vast majority of states produce predictable results. Even if the candidate of the dominant party is flawed, even if a challenger has financial advantages, FairVote executive director Rob Richie reminds us that “partisanship is the dominant factor in determining election outcomes.”