MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. — The conservative electorate of South Carolina’s First Congressional District voted Tuesday to resurrect the political career of disgraced former governor Mark Sanford by returning the Republican to his former House seat.
Sanford’s special-election race against Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, a businesswoman and first-time candidate, took twists nearly right up to the last moments.
But in the end, he cruised to an easy victory.
With 87 percent of the precincts reporting, Sanford had 54 percent of the vote.
In addition to holding views that aligned perfectly with the district, Sanford simply proved to be the more adept politician.
Colbert Busch, the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert, had run a campaign in the cautious style of an incumbent — surrounded by handlers, holding comparatively few public events, agreeing to only one debate, and offering few specifics on issues.
Sanford, on the other hand, ran the scrappy race of a challenger, despite the fact that most voters in this district had seen his name on the ballot five times before.
The contrast was evident right up to election day. Sanford packed his schedule with 11 appearances, while Colbert Busch made just one — to vote — before heading to her election night party.
Less than four years ago, Sanford — once talked about as a GOP presidential prospect — suffered a spectacular fall when he disappeared for five days on the pretext of hiking the Appalachian Trail. He was discovered instead to have been in Argentina with his mistress.
Overnight, he became a national laughingstock. His marriage ended. And although he escaped impeachment to finish his term in 2011, he agreed to pay the biggest ethics fine in South Carolina history.
His bid for a comeback strained the electorate’s capacity for forgiveness. But in some ways, he may have benefited from the generally low regard in which the public seems to hold politicians.
The scandal didn’t bother William Lauder. ‘‘It happens every day,’’ the retired shipyard worker said as he left his Mount Pleasant polling place after voting for Sanford.
If bad behavior were a disqualifier, Lauder added, ‘‘there'd be nobody up in Washington.’’
Sanford’s opportunity for a comeback presented itself in December, when then-Representative Tim Scott, a Republican, was appointed to an open spot in the Senate, leaving a vacancy in the House seat that Sanford had held for three terms in the 1990s.
Completes his comeback
Sanford bested 15 other candidates to win the GOP nomination, only to set off another tempest when it was revealed that his former wife was taking him to court for trespassing. That prompted the National Republican Campaign Committee to take the unusual step of withdrawing its support.
Colbert Busch, meanwhile, offered First District voters a chance to turn the page. Sanford took every opportunity he could to connect her to labor unions, the national Democratic Party and, particularly, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi — going so far as to cart around and ‘‘debate’’ a life-size poster of the California Democrat.
‘‘I am predicting victory,’’ Colbert Busch said after voting.
Sanford also expressed optimism, albeit more cautiously.
‘‘I think you can go back in and you can ask for a second chance in a political sense once,’’ he said after casting his vote. ‘‘I've done that, and we'll see what the voters say.’’