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Sanford Swamps GOP Message

Any hopes that House and Senate Republican leaders had for going into the July Fourth recess next week on a high note were dealt a major setback Wednesday when South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) announced he was having an affair with a woman in Argentina.

Sanford’s affair is just the latest in a series of ill-timed scandals and controversies involving high- profile Republicans that have helped undercut the efforts of party leaders to rebuild after two straight electoral losses and the repercussions of the Bush administration.

Todd Harris, a Republican strategist and partner at Scott Howell & Co., said the timing of the revelation was particularly hurtful because it throws Republicans completely off message.

“It couldn’t have come at a worse time because we were just starting to get some traction with our Obama wasteful spending message,” Harris said. “Now this sideshow is going to consume all the attention.”

Most lawmakers were reluctant to talk openly about the implications for the party’s rebranding efforts. But privately, Republicans acknowledged that the scandal, like those before it, will not help their cause.

“It’s certainly no good,” a House Republican said.

Sanford went missing for several days to visit his mistress in Argentina, and his office told reporters that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. On Wednesday, he held a bizarre press conference to admit his affair, a week after Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) stood before microphones to acknowledge having an affair with a former campaign aide who is married to a former staffer in his Congressional office.

“I’m still in shock,” one House Republican said about Sanford’s admission. “On the heels of Ensign, what was he thinking?”

“As the governor of South Carolina, to leave your car at the airport and leave for Argentina to see a woman ... that is not a mistake. That’s a brain disorder,” the Member added.

Ensign and Sanford were members of the Republican Party’s leadership — Ensign served as the chairman of the Republican Policy Committee until the scandal broke, while Sanford was chairman of the Republican Governors Association until he stepped down Wednesday. They were also both elected to the House of Representatives in 1994 as part of the historic class that wrested control of Congress from the Democrats for the first time in decades.

Ensign and Sanford had also been talked about as potential presidential contenders in 2012 and had been working to build national name recognition for themselves over the last year.

The incidents follow a chain of Republican scandals — former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig’s arrest in a Minnesota airport, former New York Rep. Vito Fossella’s drunken-driving arrest on his way to visit his mistress and illegitimate child, Louisiana Sen. David Vitter’s involvement in a prostitute scandal — as well as numerous controversial comments by Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele that have knocked the party off its message.

In almost every instance, those scandals came just as Republicans were either getting some traction with the public on a policy issue or finding comfortable footing from which to fight Democrats, party strategists said.

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