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Sanford's House Bid A Test Of S.C. Voters' Will To Forgive

Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford chats with a diner at a restaurant in Charleston, S.C. Sanford is one of 16 Republicans in Tuesday's GOP primary for the special election to fill the vacant 1st Congressional District seat.
Bruce Smith
Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford chats with a diner at a restaurant in Charleston, S.C. Sanford is one of 16 Republicans in Tuesday's GOP primary for the special election to fill the vacant 1st Congressional District seat.

Two Democrats and 16 Republicans are running for South Carolina's 1st Congressional District seat in a special election Tuesday. The seat is open because former Rep. Tim Scott was tapped to replace Sen. Jim DeMint, who retired midterm.

The biggest name in the race is former Gov. Mark Sanford, whose infamous affair led to his political downfall. Sanford is trying to stage the political comeback of a lifetime.

And he's doing it one diner at a time — greeting customers over eggs and grits at Page's Okra Grill, just outside Charleston in Mount Pleasant.

"I won't interrupt breakfast any more than I already am," Sanford says, "But I'm out and about and would appreciate your consideration on Tuesday."

Sanford says he was the most fiscally conservative governor in the nation, the first to reject federal stimulus money in 2009. But Sanford's personal life imploded four years ago, when he said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail but actually was in Argentina having an illicit affair with a woman who is now his fiancee.

Out campaigning in a casual gray jacket and khaki pants, Sanford acknowledges his mistakes and talks about humility and forgiveness.

"There's an amazing reservoir of human grace out there that I didn't understand or fully comprehend until now," he says.

As we're talking, a voter interrupts: "I just want to let you to know that your story is inspiring. Never give up."

Sanford smiles broadly. He says he has apologized to voters and spent a lot of time soul-searching before friends encouraged him to run again.

"People will give you a second chance," the former governor says. "Then at some point you have to forgive yourself as well, and you have to stand back up and try and make a contribution wherever you can."

Sanford is the front-runner, and this was his district back in the mid '90s before he was governor. It runs along the coast from the North Carolina line to Hilton Head, with huge live oaks draped in Spanish moss guiding the landscape.

Some say this election is the first real test of how much forgiveness South Carolinians can muster for Sanford.

"When he was governor, people worried about the fact that he had such a poor relationship with the General Assembly," says Mark Tompkins, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina. "Then we had the Appalachian Trail. And I wonder if people have forgiven him, and I don't think we know the answer to that."

With more than a dozen other GOP candidates running, the race is hard to gauge. Several candidates have loaned themselves hundred of thousands of dollars, and TV ads run constantly telling voters how fiscally conservative they would be.

"As your congressman, I'll fight to reduce wasteful spending, bring real budget cuts to Washington and oppose any new spending program," said former state Sen. John Kuhn, who loaned himself $500,000.

He was campaigning in Bluffton last week. Only one retired couple showed up — highlighting how tough it is to get voters' attention. Kuhn takes issue with Sanford's decision to run and says voters deserve better.

"You ask your God for forgiveness, and that's great for him," Kuhn says. "But is that what this district in South Carolina wants for a congressman, someone who's really let them down and really been dishonest?"

Many voters say they haven't decided yet, but there's at least some feeling of "anyone but Mark Sanford."

Frank and Cynthia Nappi retired to South Carolina from Connecticut about three years ago.

"I don't think the public needs him. He had his chance and he blew it," Frank Nappi says.

"He's probably part of the good old boy's system," Cynthia Nappi adds. "He has not made a positive impression on me at this point."

But back at the cafe outside Charleston, Chuck Diggle says the former governor is still the man.

"Right now, I'm still leaning toward Mark Sanford. I mean, I'm disappointed about what he did in his personal life, but he's still the most conservative of the bunch, as far as I'm concerned," Diggle says.

As for Sanford, he says he made sure his former wife, Jenny, was not running before he jumped in, and he says he has the blessing of his four sons.

"I feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing in this chapter of life," Sanford says. "We'll see whether, you know, if it comes to an end on Tuesday or not."

No GOP candidate is expected to get a majority of the vote — which means there would be a runoff next month.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Whether covering the manhunt and eventual capture of Eric Robert Rudolph in the mountains of North Carolina, the remnants of the Oklahoma City federal building with its twisted metal frame and shattered glass, flood-ravaged Midwestern communities, or the terrorist bombings across the country, including the blast that exploded in Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta, correspondent Kathy Lohr has been at the heart of stories all across the nation.