The reemergence of disgraced former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford as a serious candidate for Congress contradicts one of the long-held stereotypes about American politics. It’s said, often by eye-rolling Europeans, that American voters are too prudish about their politicians, punishing them sanctimoniously for acts of private indiscretion.
Yet Sanford, now running for a vacant House seat as a Republican, shows that Americans may actually be more forgiving of sexual indiscretions than other types of scandals. In the preliminary election last month, Sanford was one of the top two Republicans, earning a spot in the GOP runoff today to face the Democratic nominee, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert.
Once seen as a rising conservative star, Sanford shocked his constituents in 2009 by disappearing from South Carolina for several days while serving as governor. He told staff he was “hiking the Appalachian Trail”; it turned out the married governor had actually flown to Argentina to visit his mistress. Sanford’s subsequent musings about his mistress being his soul mate were humiliating for his wife and four young sons — and were clearly too much information for the average South Carolinian.
Yet even in a conservative state, many voters are willing to accept Sanford’s apology. The trip to Argentina was shocking, but misleading the public about his whereabouts and violating ethics rules may have been his greater offenses. If anything, Sanford’s return to the voters’ good graces suggests that sex serves to mitigate political scandals; in the eyes of some voters, Sanford had a more understandable reason for violating ethics rules than greed or graft. At this point, voters should be less concerned with Sanford’s nonexistent trip down the Appalachian Trail than what he promises on the campaign trail.