No special-election winner in modern congressional history has had to put off a celebratory swearing-in because of a pending court date.
It’s just one more reminder of why no special-election winner in modern congressional history will arrive in Washington with less good will from his new colleagues than Mark Sanford. Which is why it’s not surprising that he won't actually come back to Congress before the middle of next week.
At 9 points, Sanford’s margin of victory Tuesday was decisive enough that the certificate-of-election formalities could have been overlooked and he could have flown to Washington to become the new Republican House member for South Carolina’s coastal Lowcountry. Instead, he spent much of Wednesday working to make sure part of his past would not put an immediate crimp on his future.
The original plan called for him to be at the Charleston County Courthouse on Thursday, so a family court judge could hear him answer the trespassing allegations of his ex-wife, Jenny. At the last minute, though, the estranged couple agreed that he’d pay her $5,000 for violating the terms of their divorce back in February, when he went into her house while she wasn’t there to watch the Super Bowl with their youngest son.
The settlement assured one more round of coverage of the soap-operatic nature of Sanford’s personal life. It's what plunged him from rising Republican star into the wilderness of bipartisan and nationwide mockery just four years ago, and it's what looks to dog him well into his second turn as a congressman.
Already, the insider jokes and japes are starting to pile up. Surely the GOP leadership will make a spot for him on the Foreign Affairs Committee — and not just because that’s where he served during his three previous terms. Surely his first big national media hit will be the Better Know a District segment on "The Colbert Report." Surely Hollywood will be green-lighting “The Real Housewives of Capitol Hill” just as soon as the woman Sanford refers to as his soul mate, his fiancée Maria Belén Chapur, relocates from Argentina. Surely Anthony Weiner will be buying hiking boots now that he knows the road to political redemption is along the Appalachian Trail. And so on ...
As a window into the national political mood on the way into the 2014 midterm campaign, Sanford’s victory is almost totally useless. In the end, he prevailed over Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch for the simplest of reasons, which had nothing to do with his love life or her famous brother: Sanford was the Republican nominee in a solidly Republican district, and that simple symmetry almost always governs the outcomes in these hyper-partisan times, as my colleague Stuart Rothenberg observes.
As an indication of the power of the “God of second chances,” as Sanford describes his divine helpmate, the results suggested he underperformed a little bit. While Mitt Romney carried the district with 58 percent and John McCain won it in 2008 with 56 percent, Sanford’s share this time was 54 percent — hardly the stuff of a redemption bounce.
But as this spring’s hot new symbol for what the public finds distasteful about Congress, Sanford’s return could really fit the bill. Although he cheated on his wife and lied about it, he’s nonetheless just benefited from an electoral system that voters say they revile: districts get gerrymandered and money flows disproportionately to one party’s establishment. And he’s been allowed back into the Capitol Hill club at a time those same voters decry how the incumbent political class is way too willing to forgive and forget the sins of insiders while upbraiding everyone else.
That’s why, when Sanford does show up next week, the gallery in the House chamber will be more crowded than usual for the obligatory welcoming ceremony.
Aides, lobbyists and reporters will be counting how many lawmakers — from either party— attend and then applaud, because many on both sides of the aisle know their institutional approval rating can still slip a few points lower than the current 15 percent.
The audience will also be fascinated to see if the oath is administered, as is custom, by Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio. He’s an institutionalist, but he also has a famously low tolerance for morally corrupt shenanigans by his GOP colleagues. And he maintains a keen awareness that Democrats will spend the next year pointing to Sanford as a metaphor for Republican hostility toward women.
The National Republican Congressional Committee pulled its money and its people away from the Sanford campaign after the trespassing came to light, betting that if Colbert Bush won as a consequence of the abandonment, she could be defeated handily by almost anyone else in just 18 months.
Assuming there’s not an even uglier shoe to drop, the Republican Conference looks to be stuck with Sanford in a loveless political marriage for as long as he’d like. Since his 53rd birthday is this month, that could be a long time — or not, if he chooses to someday pull a surprise and walk out on them, too.