- Disgraced former Gov. Mark Sanford overcame past scandals to win House seat
- Sanford is a veteran campaigner while opponent Colbert Bush made some rookie mistakes
- Surprisingly high turnout in solid Republican district helped Sanford
Mark Sanford is heading back to Washington after detours along the Appalachian Trail and Argentina.
The former South Carolina governor finished his second term in office three years ago with his political career dead in the water thanks to a well-publicized extra-marital affair and ethics violations. But he came away Tuesday with a victory over Democratic opponent Elizabeth Colbert Busch in the special election for a vacant House seat in the Palmetto State's 1st Congressional District -- the same seat he once held.
Here's what we've learned, or better yet, re-learned, from Sanford's victory
1. Voters give politicians second chances
From the start of his bid for Congress, Sanford was very open on the campaign trail about the affair and made it the subject of his first TV ad. Sanford asked for, and received, political redemption from the voters.
"I want to acknowledge a God not just of second chances but third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth chances, because that is the reality of our shared humanity," said Sanford at his victory celebration Tuesday night. "I am one imperfect man saved by God's grace."
He repeated that theme minutes later at a news conference with reporters.
"I think we're always on the search for redemption and I think this is certainly a degree of political redemption."
Colbert Busch's campaign, as well as two national Democratic groups which contributed money and support to her campaign, highlighted the affair. At their only general election debate, Colbert Busch confronted Sanford about his 2009 secret trip to Argentina to see his mistress.
And her campaign went up with a TV commercial which slammed Sanford for using "tax dollars to visit his mistress in Argentina, disappeared for a week leaving no one in charge, betrayed all who trusted him, then lied to cover it up. Mark Sanford, it's a question of character."
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the pro-Democrat House Majority PAC, which, combined, spent nearly $900,000 to try and defeat Sanford, also spotlighted the affair in their final ads.
But in the end, it wasn't enough.
2. Candidates matter
For all his political baggage, Mark Sanford is a veteran on the campaign trail. And Elizabeth Colbert Busch showed her campaign inexperience at times.
"Sanford may be a flawed candidate but he's a fabulous campaigner," said Republican strategist Hogan Gidley, a former executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party. "Forget the rhetoric or the policy or the delivery -- hand-to-hand, eye-to-eye he's very good and it's impossible to outwork him."
Sanford also seemed to win this election one voter at a time. The candidate appeared to be everywhere in the campaign's closing days. He held nearly 15 events on Monday, with another 10 on Election Day.
3. Turnout matters
We knew Democratic voters were fired up, but the big question concerned Republican voters in a district that the GOP has held for more 30 years. Would they vote even with their reservations about Sanford?
The answer appears to be yes.
It was a high turnout for a special election. Roughly a quarter of the 18-plus population voted, more than 140,000 votes total, according to a CNN analysis of the vote.
"That seems to have helped Sanford," CNN Polling Director Keating Holland said. "Low turnout would have meant a lot of Republicans who were reluctant to vote for him and wouldn't vote for a Democrat. High turnout turns that around: Plenty of Republicans who had misgivings about Sanford came out to vote anyway."
And House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi might be one reason why.
Sanford and his campaign repeatedly tied Colbert Busch to Pelosi, saying that a vote for Colbert Busch would also be a vote for Pelosi, who has high negatives with Republican voters and who most likely would become House speaker again if the Democrats run the table and regain control of the chamber in next year's midterm elections.
"I've fought hard over the years to make South Carolina a better place to call home. But those efforts pale now against the larger battle for the direction of our country. Maybe that's why Nancy Pelosi and allies have spent more than a million dollars to defeat me. But this contest is bigger than them or me, it's about two different visions of how we restore America and reign in Washington spending," Sanford said, looking into the camera in a TV spot that started running district-wide last week.
Two weeks ago he even debated a cardboard cutout of Pelosi to call out Colbert Busch for not accepting more than one debate.
The strategy appears to have paid off.
4. Location, location, location
Macro: The 1st Congressional District is GOP country. Mitt Romney carried the district by 18 percentage points in last November's presidential election. And Rep. Tim Scott was reelected by 27 points before he was picked by GOP Gov. Nikki Haley to fill the Senate seat vacated by Sen. Jim DeMint, who stepped down to take over as the head of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Even a candidate with serious political baggage like Sanford was able to win.
Micro: Sanford won all five counties in the district. He won big where he needed to, in the conservative counties of Berkeley and Dorchester, taking around 60% of the vote. He carried the district's second most populous county, Beaufort, by 6 percentage points. Some Democrats hoped that older voters in that county, which includes Hilton Head, would be turned off by Sanford's affair.
Sanford narrowly carried his home base of Charleston County, where the most voters were at stake. That was also Colbert Busch's best hope.
5. Money doesn't always matter
Colbert Busch's campaign outspent Sanford's operation in the closing weeks. And the DCCC and House Majority PAC combined spent around $900,000 to try to defeat Sanford, who received far less support from outside groups. Money matters in campaign politics, but it's just one factor in determining a race.