Mark Sanford's Primary Win Demonstrates Power of Forgiveness After Scandal

PHOTO: Maria Belen Chapur and former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford pose for a picture in Mount Pleasant, S.C., on April 2, 2013, after Sanford won the GOP nomination for the U.S. House seat he once held.Bruce Smith/AP Photo
Maria Belen Chapur and former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford pose for a picture in Mount Pleasant, S.C., on April 2, 2013, after Sanford won the GOP nomination for the U.S. House seat he once held.

Mark Sanford's triumphant return to politics with his victory in a Republican primary for his former South Carolina House seat at least partly demonstrates the power of redemption among voters for candidates who slip badly but come clean and seek forgiveness.

Yes, Sanford hasn't won yet. He will take on Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch in a general election next month. But he was able to beat out his primary opponents to get to a position where his comeback is even possible.

In June 2009, when he gave a teary, rambling press conference and admitted he was not hiking the Appalachian Trail, as he'd claimed, but actually was visiting his mistress in Argentina. He apologized and later told his constituents and the world the woman, Argentine journalist Maria Belen Chapur, was his soul mate.

"I've spent the last five days of my life crying in Argentina. I am committed to trying to get my heart right," Sanford said at the time.

Who would have thought that man could have such a comeback -- and with his mistress, now fiancee, by his side no less? Chapur stood next to Sanford when he at his victory party. She didn't address the crowd, but he thanked her for her "long suffering" while he was on the campaign trail.

READ MORE: Other Politicians That Have Bounced Back From Scandal

Sanford is from the conservative state of South Carolina and a district that hasn't elected a Democrat since 1981. But that conservatism also holds a way back for the fallen. Hogan Gidley, a former South Carolina state party director, said it does because the electorate is not just conservative, but religious.

"It's also evangelical," Gidley said. "As evangelicals, we believe in Christ and we believe in forgiveness. ... We are conservative, sure we are, but it lends to faster forgiveness because that's what the Bible says."

He also noted that in the state's January 2012 presidential primary, South Carolina Republicans voted for Gingrich, despite his own marital infidelity scandal that led to his own time in the political wilderness.

However, Gidley added that doesn't mean he's a shoo-in, stressing that "people should be able to separate forgiving the man and recognizing that he is unfit to hold office."

Gidley mentioned Sanford's television ads where he apologized as being effective. In his first one he said, "I have experienced how none of us go through life without mistakes, but in their wake we can learn a lot about grace, a God of second chances, and be the better for it."

"What Marc Sanford did incredibly well in his TV ads is (communicate) if you don't vote for me you haven't forgiven me," Gidley, who also worked for Sanford primary rival Larry Grooms, said. "That's what I found offensive. The two can be separated. This is not about his performance as a father or his performance as a husband, it's about his performance as governor. He received the largest ethics fine in the history of the state because he used taxpayer dollars to visit his mistress. He left the state in constitutional crisis for four days because he left the country and didn't tell anybody where he was going."

Gidley said Sanford was "very crafty" by conveying a message that "a vote for him was to forgive him" and "by doing so effectively glossed over his derelictions of duty as governor."

Of course, Sanford is just the latest in a long line of politicians mired in sex scandals who have waged come backs or survived the storm: Sen. David Vitter, R-La., former Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., former speaker of the House and GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and, of course, the biggest survivor of them all: former President Bill Clinton. Scandal-scarred former Rep. Anthony Weiner denied interest in entering the New York City mayoral race over the summer, possibly because just not enough time has passed.

Matthew Hiltzik, the former press secretary for the Democratic Party in New York who now does crisis communications and public relations and is one of the preeminent strategists in his field, says redemption needs to be evaluated on a "case by case basis," but the timeline is shorter or at least it feels that way.

"Because the 24 hour constant nature of the news cycle, something that may have taken a year in the past and feel that way maybe after three or six months," Hiltzik said. "The sheer volume of news makes something feel more distant than it is."

He notes that opportunity is crucial in political comebacks because there isn't always an open seat for a comeback to be made and adds there is a "variety of factors" that can lead to a politician returning from the dead like "contrition" and "whether there are any real victims," as well as political opportunity.

Hiltzik says Sanford's decision to have Chapur appear by his side at his victory party is not necessarily a mistake "considering she's been hidden so much from the public, it's not a bad idea to be up front about it now."

"It answers the question, 'What happened to her?' This is what happened to her, I'm with her," Hiltzik said. "She is out there, it's good to be open about it, but there is no need to overdo it and have her more visible than necessary…significant others in politics play different roles depending on the office."

Scott Sobel is a crisis and reputation manager in Washington, D.C., and he agrees with Hiltzik saying the short timeline for political redemption is just "another indication of the influence of our saturation with different kinds of media.

"There is a shrinking of the news cycle and a shortened attention span not just as a nation, but as a people," Sobel said, adding when it comes to redemption a "heartfelt apology is key."

"The perfunctory 'Gee I'm sorry,' wife standing next to me, I'm a politician that has been caught with their hand in the cookie jar, please forgive me I think it is becoming less of an effective tool in the public eye," Sobel said. "But, I do think heartfelt apologies…have a positive effect and Sanford is a good example of all those things."

Sobel added that when the public is watching an apology and evaluating forgiveness "they tend to put themselves in to the subject's position."

"So, how would you act? How would you do? Obviously you wouldn't be the most eloquent," Sobel said referring to Sanford's 2009 rambling press conference. "Not being slick under those circumstances was probably very helpful for him. Not rehearsed to the point of slick, that sincerity was there."

Like Gidley, Sobel noted now that the primary is over this is a whole new race and while Sanford was "in essence running against himself" he's now "running against an opponent with credentials and even national fame, being (Stephen) Colbert's sister and that's a whole different race, a whole different campaign."

"The result of the election will be how his opponent treats his history and…how she tends to treat his mistake," Sobel said.