Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford won a special election Tuesday against Elizabeth Colbert Busch to represent South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. That a man who has been mercilessly mocked for the humiliating unraveling of his affair (he’s had more fun than anyone ever “hiking the Appalachian Trail”) defeated Stephen Colbert’s sister in an underfunded, grassroots election reveals something we’ve known all along — only liberals in New York and California watch The Colbert Report.
But the results indicate something much more important than that — namely, that the right candidate can win even with more skeletons in their closets than dollars in their campaign coffers. Although money, recognition and a plain vanilla personal background are helpful, campaigns are still won and lost to elbow grease, baby kissing and ideas.
Politicians have always been able to get past most faux pas, whether they are doing hard drugs, mispronouncing half of the words in the English language, or — according to some — born in Kenya. Just when you leave a politician for dead with scandals and rumors, they’ll come right back to life — leading me to believe all politicians are actually cats.
However, the one thing that is kryptonite to any aspiring politician is a good ol’ fashioned sex scandal. Sanford, Bill Clinton, Anthony Weiner, Larry Craig: All were shamed and punished for acts of infidelity, Hester Prynne style. But Sanford showed to the world that voters are willing to give second chances to those they feel deserve it. In that respect, Sanford did a remarkable job of convincing the voters of that, holding an unbelievable amount of events and meetings in the district, being open about his affair (his first ad directly addressed it) and directly communicating with voters the notion that he acted inappropriately and is a changed man.
Even more shocking is that Mark the adulterer won this election with a huge financial disadvantage. At a time when super PACs rule politics in a way that makes the entire city of Chicago stare in awe, Sanford conducted his campaign with virtually no money. After his ex-wife claimed he trespassed on her property (to check on his kids, who were there alone. What a monster!), the National Republican Congressional Committee withdrew funding and support. Sensing weakness, Democrats took the opportunity to heavily finance Colbert Busch’s campaign, allowing her to travel the district with her own tour bus.
Colbert Busch had money, she had backing, she had a ridiculous brother who mocked former President George W. Bush on national television. Sanford had none of that, but he didn’t let it stop him. While most of us watching on the sidelines would have thought he was doomed – just as many do about Anthony Weiner potentially running for mayor of New York City – he caught the entire nation by surprise and won with 54 percent of the vote.
So while pundits, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the candidates themselves try to make sense of what happened in the Palmetto State, the American people could take away a few very important lessons from this special election. The first is that, though not everyone automatically deserves a second chance, many people do, and fortunately getting them doesn’t seem that impossible anymore.
Additionally, the little guy really does stand a chance. It’s true that Sanford was initially the favorite, but he quickly became the underdog after the trespassing debacle. And yet, with little money, no national support, and no bus with his giant face on it, Mark Sanford went from venue to venue, often showing up unannounced at restaurants to speak. It worked.
This election is the political version of “The Karate Kid.” And even though every American seems to have some reservations about our political system, an election like this helps inspire new hope that elections can work out after all.