May 7, 2013— -- Mark Sanford has pulled off a political comeback some thought impossible.
After the infamous Argentine affair tarnished his governorship in 2009, and after state officials slapped him with 37 ethics charges later that year for unrelated trips, Sanford left office as one of the nation's top political pariahs.
Now Sanford is back, having retaken the South Carolina House seat he held in the 1990s. With 187 of 317 precincts reporting, Sanford led 54 percent to Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch's 45 percent. The Associated Press has called him the victor.
Sanford defeated Colbert Busch, the sister of Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert, despite her significant cash advantage -- and despite some aggressive ads from outside Democratic groups highlighting the affair that ended his marriage and his term as governor.
Thanking his supporters, his opponent, and his fiance, in his victory speech Sanford posed his improbable comeback as a triumph of fiscal conservatism.
"I said from the beginning of this campaign that we are indeed at a tipping point in this civilization, and that if we didn't get things right there would be real consequences for the American dollar, American savings, and the American way of life," Sanford told supporters.
From the beginning, Sanford sought forgiveness and appeared humbled.
"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," Sanford told voters in his first TV ad.
Sanford's comeback opportunity arose from historic circumstances. When Republican Jim DeMint left the Senate to run the Heritage Foundation, a prominent conservative D.C. think tank, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley appointed Rep. Tim Scott to replace him, opening up Scott's House seat -- which Sanford used to hold -- for a special election. Scott became the only African American currently in the Senate and the first black senator since the 1800s.
Sanford overcame some significant mishaps to retake the seat.
In April, ABC and other media outlets reported for the first time that his ex-wife, Jenny Sanford, had accused the former governor of trespassing at her house in February, violating their divorce agreement. Mark Sanford claimed he had gone there to watch the Super Bowl with his son, whom he didn't think should have to watch the game alone.
That prompted the National Republican Congressional Committee to pull its backing of Sanford. The NRCC did not report spending any independent money on the race.
Sanford will have to appear in court on Wednesday to explain himself to a judge.
Sanford faced a wave of headlines after Maria Belen Chapur, his fiancee and the former mistress he visited in Argentina in 2009, surprised him by appearing at his primary victory party. Jenny Sanford would later tell The Washington Post that it was the first time one of the Sanfords' sons had met Chapur and that her attendance upset two of the boys.
In perhaps the weirdest moment of their campaign, Elizabeth Colbert Busch brought up Sanford's trip to Argentina during their only televised debate, at the Citadel on April 29 -- and Sanford claimed he hadn't heard her.
"When we talk about fiscal spending and we talk about protecting the taxpayer, it doesn't mean you take that money we save and leave the country for a personal purpose," Colbert Busch told him sternly.
"I couldn't hear what she said," Sanford replied. "Repeat it, I didn't hear that. I'm sorry."
Sanford also overcame a cash disadvantage and a wave of outside Democratic spending. Colbert Busch outraised Sanford $1.18 million to $787,000 as of their latest disclosures, released April 17. Outside groups spent more than $1.1 million in the district, almost all of it attacking Sanford; the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and House Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC focusing on House races, spent nearly $1 million to attack the former governor.
Those groups bashed Sanford on South Carolina airwaves. One ad from House Majority PAC featured a woman accusing Sanford of abandoning his family and the state.
Accusing his opponent of being beholden to the national party, Sanford made House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi a major theme in his campaign. At a public event, he staged a faux "debate" against a life-sized cardboard image of Pelosi.
Had he lost tonight, it likely would have been the end of Sanford's political career: He has said that if he lost, he would not seek public office again.
But Sanford appears to be back for good. His Republican district voted solidly for Mitt Romney in 2012, and having won over the district's voters for a second time in his career, the seat is red enough -- and Sanford is conservative enough -- that he's poised to hold it without a significant challenge from either the left or right.