In The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, Corey Rubin writes “far from being an invention of the politically correct, victimhood has been a talking point of the right ever since Burke decried the mob’s treatment of Marie Antoinette.” We see this victim card played by a number of conservative politicians and everyday conservatives. We hear about how a number of Republicans are routinely discriminated against because of their political views, their religious views, or are otherwise victimized. They can weaponize this victim accusation to their political gain. Those who are not Republicans who may have actually been victimized may see their actions backfire when seen through a partisan lens.
Mark Sanford was Governor of South Carolina in 2009 when he claimed that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail, he was actually in Argentina having an affair. During his disappearance, there was speculation over who was running the state. Sanford’s wife claimed that he had previously disappeared like this in the past, as well. It was later found out that Sanford and his wife were going through a trial separation at the time. Sanford never thought about resigning from being the Governor of South Carolina. He did, however, resign as Chairman of the Republican Governors Association. The South Carolina legislature let Sanford know that they were going to impeach him if he did not resign. Sanford called what ultimately became a bluff. He was able to serve out his time as Governor. His wife, Jenny Sanford, filed divorce which included custody of their sons.
In 2013, the 1st Congressional District in South Carolina held a special election to replace Tim Scott who was appointed the Senator after Jim DeMint’s resignation. Sanford had previously stated that the last election he was in was his last, decided to throw his hat into the ring. In the crowded field to replace Scott, Sanford was a heavy favorite to retake the seat. He was the leading vote getter in the initial primary. However, because nobody got the majority of the vote, it was headed to a run-off.
In a poll released on March 26, 2013 Sanford had a net favorability in the district of -24 compared to the net favorability of +14 of Elizabeth Colbert Busch who was going to be the Democratic challenger. His favorability was much higher with Republicans in the district (not surprisingly). His net favorability with Republicans was +14. With those who had supported Mitt Romney in 2012 was +14. Jenny’s net favorability overall was +37 in the district and +43 with Romney supporters.
On April 17, 2013, it was reported by the Associated Press that his ex-wife Jenny had filed a complaint on Mark regarding an incident where he was trespassing on her property. According to the complaint, this was not the first time that he had trespassed on the property. Jenny, to her credit, said that she was trying her hardest not to interfere with the race saying that she thought that the documents should be kept sealed. Mark claimed that he was trying to go to the house to watch the 2nd half of the Super Bowl with his son and that he tried to reach out to Jenny.
Public Policy Polling conducted a poll from April 19 -21 of that year so immediately after the incident became public. His net favorability ticked upwards slightly within the district to -18. His favorability was higher among Mitt Romney supporters to +23. Jenny’s net favorability suffered quite a bit of a decline. In the district as a whole, her net favorability was +28. Almost all of this decline was with Romney supporters, as her net favorability fell to +22, a 21 point drop. 64% of Romney supporters said that the trespassing charges gave them no doubts at all about his fitness for public office.
There was very little other news that came out around that time for Sanford that I am able to find. The debate for the special election did not occur until April 29. Sanford went on the trail debating a cardboard cutout of Nancy Pelosi after the trespassing news came out. So it’s not really clear what was driving Sanford’s increased support.
Sanford’s favorability went higher and higher as it was closer to the election. With Romney’s supporter, he hit a net favorability of +34 in a poll released on May 5, 2013. Jenny’s net favorability stayed around the same as the last poll showing a net favorability of +25 with Romney supporters. Despite Sanford’s overall net favorability of -11 in the district as a whole, he won the special election 54-45 against Colbert Busch.
My theory is that while Sanford was most likely trespassing on his ex-wife’s property without her permission. However, the problem is that voters thought Jenny Sanford was trying to politicize this issue and show that he was unfit for office. This galvanized conservatives who view every attack on them as political regardless of if it was true. This effectively gave Sanford a chance to win the special election and he took advantage of the opportunity.
We will revisit the Sanford case as we approach a couple of other issues. This special election gave us an opportunity to see a number of issues that I will bring up over the coming days and weeks.