CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Now that former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford has resurrected a once-promising political career by regaining his old House seat, he'll have to rebuild the reputation that once earned him praise as a possible presidential contender among colleagues.
The Republican preached fiscal responsibility during his first three terms in Congress in the 1990s. But many lawmakers in office more than a decade later know him primarily as the two-term governor who tearfully admitted an affair with a woman in Argentina, which he covered up by saying he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. He later paid the largest ethics fine in state history for using state resources for personal travel.
On the campaign trail, he couldn't escape a past that for a time turned his name into a late-night punch line. But voters were willing to accept his promise to protect their pocketbooks and message of personal redemption. Political observers say it won't be impossible for him to convince fellow lawmakers in Congress to do the same — even after national Republicans yanked funding from his campaign in the wake of allegations that he was at his ex-wife's home without her permission and other allies seemed to keep their distance.
"If untowardly behavior were a disqualification, our parking problems up here would be over," said Republican political consultant Rich Galen. "I'm not sure he'll be welcomed with open arms, but he will be accepted as a member of the club."
Scott Buchanan, the executive director of The Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics, agreed that Sanford will have room to rebuild alliances.
"I don't want to say there will be no hard feelings but, let's face it, these politicians can cuss one another one day and be patting each other on the shoulders the next," Buchanan said.
Sanford defeated his well-financed Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert. She was a political novice who has never before held elected office in the mostly conservative 1st District, where Sanford had name recognition from his first three terms in Congress and where voters haven't elected a Democrat in years.
His past experience does give him an advantage in raising his profile once again — a key piece of which will include jockeying for committee assignments.
"He knows how the place works. That's a huge advantage," Galen said. "He knows how the game is played."
Sanford saw his political career disintegrate in summer 2009 when he disappeared for five days, telling his staff he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. He returned to admit in a tearful news conference he had been in Argentina with his mistress, Maria Belen Chapur. They are now engaged, and she flew from Argentina to be with him for his victory speech on Tuesday. Sanford later paid a $70,000 ethics fine, the largest in state history, for using public money to fly for personal purposes. His wife and political ally, Jenny, divorced him.
During the campaign, the National Republican Congressional Committee pulled support from Sanford's campaign after news surfaced he was in his ex-wife's house without permission.
Even some of Sanford's allies held him at arm's length during the campaign. U.S. Sens. Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham issued endorsement statements a week before the special election. Gov. Nikki Haley appeared at one Charleston fundraiser for her one-time mentor and did no other active campaigning.
All three have to run statewide campaigns next year and likely did not want to appear to be too close to Sanford, Buchanan said. However, that doesn't necessarily mean Sanford will be a pariah in Washington.
Galen said many will be impressed he was able to pull it off.
"These guys are looking at it and wondering, 'How the hell did he do that?'" Galen said.
Ever since delivering his victory speech Tuesday night, Sanford has remained focused on one issue as he prepares to head to Washington: the economy.
"I have said from the beginning of this campaign we are indeed at a tipping point and if we don't get things right there will be real consequences for the American dollar, for our savings and for the American way of life," Sanford told more than 100 supporters at his victory party on Tuesday night.
Indeed, Sanford first raised his national profile by focusing on government spending since he was first elected in 1994. Known for his frugality, Sanford famously slept on a futon in his House office to save money. As governor, he brought two pigs — named Pork and Barrel — to the Statehouse to protest legislative spending.
As governor, he had enough star power to travel the country endorsing other Republican candidates. Whether he can ever reclaim that high stature remains to be seen.
"He's still going to have to continue through the wilderness, so to speak, before he gets back to that level of going around and endorsing candidates," Buchanan said.