Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford faced his 2009 admission of infidelity head on Thursday evening in a debate with former Charleston County Councilman Curtis Bostic, who said that Sanford’s history could cost Republicans the election.
The two Republicans are in a runoff to become the Republican nominee in the race for the 1st Congressional District seat. The seat was vacated by former Rep. Tim Scott when he was appointed to replace Sen. Jim DeMint, who retired to become president of the Heritage Foundation.
Sanford and Bostic were the two top vote-getters in a 16-person primary. The winner of Tuesday’s runoff election will face Democratic nominee Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert.
It was an overwhelmingly cordial debate, with both candidates maintaining a friendly tone and a smile as they lobbed attacks at one another.
Sanford’s final two years as governor were overshadowed by a scandal that arose in 2009 when he left the state for seven days and confessed upon his return that he had been having an affair with an Argentinean woman, who is now his fiancé. This race is his first return to the political arena since then, and it has been a much-discussed subject throughout this campaign.
Thursday night was no different.
“Gov. Sanford, it is, to use the term, the elephant in the room. In 2009, you broke the trust of the people of South Carolina,” said the moderator. “How do you reconcile redemption with the mistrust in the personal decision which could or may have compromised the state and the party?”
Sanford called it an “important question, and one that I suspect one that I’ll wrestle at one level or another with for the rest of my life.”
“I failed,” he said. “And I failed very publicly.”
“What I would say is the events of 2009 absolutely represent a failure on my part for which there were and always will be at some level consequences. But that does not mean that because you’ve had a failure on your personal life, that you cannot step back into life again,” Sanford said.
He said that when the seat opened up, “all of sudden my phone lines light up with a lot of people saying, ‘Mark you need to do this.’ And at first you’re scared to death, you don’t know how you’d be received if you were to step back into the waters. But people kept calling, and they kept calling and they said, ‘Mark, you need to do this, because here’s a chance for you to learn not only from your experience in Congress and the governorship, but more significantly from what you learned on the way up and the way down and apply it to what is arguably one of the great conundrums of our civilization, which is how do we get our fiscal house in order.’ And should I make it, that’s what I intend to do.”
Sanford received raucous applause from the audience for the answer.
But Bostic, responding, contended that Sanford’s scandal would lose the seat for Republicans, should he become the Republican nominee.
“Trust is a crucial issue. In fact, it has become a crucial issue in this race,” Bostic said.
After Sanford’s performance in the primary, in which he received the most votes by a large margin, Bostic said, “many began to forecast that he would be a shoo-in for the next seat. In fact, Democrats became very excited about that. And what has resulted is that Democrats are excited about the possibility of taking this seat back.”
“The polls show that should the governor be the candidate facing the Democrat, we will lose this seat and lose it needlessly, because of this issue of trust,” Bostic said.
“Trust is not had … a compromised candidate is not what we need. It’s just not what we need. We need to secure this seat. It needs to be red,” he said.
A Public Policy Polling poll released this week did show Sanford performing slightly less well against Colbert Busch than Bostic. Bostic would tie her 43 percent each, while Sanford trailed narrowly, 45 percent to 47 percent.
Sanford brushed off the poll numbers.
“I think whether it’s you or me, the Republican’s going to win this based on issues,” he said.
“I would also say this, as to your comment on a compromised candidate, it has come to be my belief that at one level or another, we are all compromised as human beings,” he added.
Sanford, in fact, made light of the fact that, “while my skeletons are out there, they’re out there.”
“I would say with all due respect to Curtis, you know, he decided not to disclose his financial disclosure information before the FEC, and I don’t know if there’s anything good or bad in there, but the point is, we don’t want surprises on that front,” Sanford said.
Bostic portrayed himself throughout the debate as the new guy, referring to himself as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” He repeatedly knocked Sanford as “Mr. No,” criticizing him as someone who was unwilling to work with others and was so determined to stand on principle that he got nothing done.
“The fact is, it takes more than saying no. I can say no and I will say no. I did that on Charleston county council. I said no. And sometimes that’s very, very unpopular. And I applaud the governor for those appropriate times when as a congressman and as a governor he said no. But it takes more than that. It takes someone who can build meaningful relationships with conservatives around conservative ideas,” Bostic said.
“I would just say, it also takes more than yes,” Sanford shot back.
The PPP poll found Sanford with a commanding lead over Bostic in the runoff, 53 percent to 40 percent. Voters go to the polls on Tuesday.