Will Republicans regret electing Mark Sanford?

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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Just weeks after a major poll found him trailing by 9 points, Mark Sanford fought back and won by the same margin. Now political observers are trying to wring meaning from the disgraced former South Carolina governor’s return to Congress.

Some say that Sanford, with his cheating ways and disappearance from the state, is just the latest front in the “War on Women.” What better way to illustrate that Republicans really don’t respect women?

Sanford even beat a woman, Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, to reclaim his old House seat.

Meghan McCain fretted that this was just another example of Republican hypocrisy on marriage.

The common thread in these talking points is that Republicans will regret Sanford’s comeback. And he will be subject to greater scrutiny than before, so his undeniable personal weirdness — which ranges from the charming to the bizarre — could certainly become a problem going forward.

But some perspective is in order. This was a heavily Republican district, where Mitt Romney won by 18 points. Sanford had previously represented it in another form, prior to redistricting.

If there had been no affair, no trip to Argentina to tarnish Sanford, Colbert Busch would have been taken about as seriously as Charlie Rangel’s last GOP challenger.

In the end, she lost the district’s Charleston precincts — just like she lost everywhere else.

Sanford worked hard, campaigned well, turned in a solid debate performance and made the case that his views were in line with the district’s.

His opponent traded on her brother’s celebrity — you may have heard of him — while doing little to distance herself from the liberal national party brand and keeping campaign appearances to a minimum.

Any meaningful debate over the broader implications of Sanford’s victory should focus on this question: Are all red-district Democrats this screwed headed into 2014 or just the ones who are as lazy as Colbert Busch?

In a way it is fitting that the NRCC bailed on the South Carolina race. Sanford is a principled opponent of big government — even when it is pushed by Republicans.

During his first stint in Congress, Sanford regularly voted against unconstitutional and ill-conceived legislation even when it was supported by his own party’s leadership.

“I remember the leadership would come and say, ‘This stuff is okay during the campaign, but we have to govern,’ and I thought it was govern toward a specific end, not just govern to govern,” he later recalled.

As governor, when Republicans in the state legislature wanted to increase spending, Sanford resisted them.

And he will add to the small but growing caucus of congressional Republicans opposed to a foreign policy based on preventive war.

Solid moral character is certainly a good thing for elected officials, and marital fidelity is one of the defining characteristics. But obedience to the Constitution and a willingness to confront the country’s long-term fiscal challenges is even more important.

If conservatives are serious about limiting government, cutting federal spending and reforming entitlements, they need to support politicians who share those goals.

Recent history has shown that many, perhaps most, Republicans don’t want to be part of those fights when the chips are down.

The real test of whether Republicans mean what they say about big government is whether they will oppose big-government Republicanism.

Sanford, for all his numerous faults, has passed that test. And Republican voters are increasingly making that their number one consideration.

For good reason: It’s a test a country with a broke federal government can no longer afford to have its politicians fail.

House Speaker John Boehner doesn’t seem very excited to have Sanford back?

Some of Sanford’s South Carolina Republican colleagues were so slow to endorse him that they might as well have mailed their endorsements in by absentee ballot?

The national party pulled the plug on the special election?

In today’s political climate, these might as well be recommendations.

So let’s hope Sanford refrains from any future hikes along the Appalachian Trail. Pray he’s finally learned his lesson and brings no further embarrassment onto his family. Root for him to not be fodder for late-night comedy routines.

But if Sanford makes the Republican leadership a little uncomfortable, that might not necessarily be a bad thing. It could be a sign he’s doing his job.

W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the recently released book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.