‘Excuse me, do you know what’s going on here that it’s so crowded?”
I’m walking through a Publix parking lot in Mount Pleasant, S.C., to the Liberty Tap Room, and it’s 7:55 p.m. on Tuesday, May 7 — Election Day in the state’s first congressional district. A middle-aged woman is leaning out of her Suburban, frowning in the direction of the bar, trying to ascertain the reason for the plethora of TV news trucks and camera equipment.
“It’s Mark Sanford’s victory party,” I tell her.
She gapes at me, confused.
“Did he win?”
Less than an hour later, the AP declares that the answer to that question is yes — and not just a yes, but a definite yes, by nine points, despite being outspent 4–1 and abandoned for all practical purposes by the national fundraising arm of his party. There will be lots of analysis in the days to come about what this election means, but one thing isn’t up for debate: Mark Sanford knows how to campaign, and his win here is due at least in part to his tireless canvassing and cheerful willingness to ask for the vote of anyone who would listen to him.
When he arrived at the victory party, Sanford was in full-on retail-politics mode. I followed the former governor on the campaign trail the day before the election and wrote about his perpetual handshaking and small-talking. Winning the election doesn’t seem to have tempered his pace. When he arrives at the party, he laps around the front of the building (which, a server tells me, is more crowded than it’s ever been), posing for pictures and hugging supporters.
Two things are different from the day before, though: First, he’s wearing a suit instead of stained khakis and busted-up shoes, and actually looks like someone who might belong in the halls of the Capitol. And second, he’s got his oldest son, Marshall, in tow. He looks around for his son every minute or two — when he loses sight of him, he asks the nearest staffer, “Where’d Marshall go?” and whenever he gets a chance, he introduces the 20-year-old to supporters who haven’t met him.
Mark Sanford’s sister, Sarah Sanford Rauch, isn’t far behind. She’s one of his veteran campaign volunteers, and she’s outspoken about her support for her embattled brother. I ask her how she feels.
“Exhausted,” she tells me. “It’s the toughest race I’ve ever been in. I’ve helped out on a bunch of races, but this is the toughest, by far.”
“You wake up every morning and you look at the newspaper and you wait to see what anvil is getting dropped on your head each day,” she adds.
I ask if the win is going to be good for their family, and she hesitates.
“I think so,” she replies after a moment. “Because we know Mark is where he needs to be.”
By the time Sanford makes it into the main room where volunteers, supporters, and members of the local and national press have congregated, the building is packed and unpleasantly stuffy in the Carolina humidity. There’s a cheer when he comes in, and people start to chant, “Let’s go, Mark! Let’s go, Mark!”
The cameramen are on risers, but Sanford doesn’t have a stage, so he steps up onto a big industrial kitchen pan that gives him an extra six inches or so, and launches into his acceptance speech. And that’s when I look over and realize that his fiancée, María Belén Chapur, is standing right beside me. She’s wearing a black cocktail dress and heels, and she has bright red nail polish. And she’s beaming.
Sanford himself also stands in front of his sister, her two young sons, and state senator Tom Davis, who was an early supporter of his campaign — back when conventional wisdom held that disappearing to South America to tryst with your lover was a career-ender. It’s understandable that Davis couldn’t help crowing.
“I think it’s the Easter season for conservative Republican politics in South Carolina,” he tells me, grinning, “because a favorite son and a champion of fiscal conservatism is back in the game.”
He was a little more pointed on Twitter: “SC 1st congressional district is sending a fiscally conservative, libertarian-leaning Republican to DC. Sorry, NRCC. We won anyway.”
Sanford is a touch humbler.
“Until you’ve experienced human grace as a reflection of God’s grace, I don’t think you really get it,” he says in his speech. “I didn’t get it before. And I get it in a way that I never have before, and I want to publicly acknowledge God’s role in all this.”
His assistant and driver, Martha Morris (who was also the woman who held the cut-out of Nancy Pelosi that Sanford debated), echoes that when we talk afterwards.
“Not only has he made me a better conservative, and understand why I’m a conservative, but he’s also made me a better Christian,” she tells me.
“Kind of as an extension of him, folks would open up to me, and I’ve — I’ve been so blessed,” she says. “And I really do think he’s solidified my decision to be a conservative and a Christian, which I think is really cool.”
As the rest of Sanford’s speech unfolds, Chapur glows. Sanford tells a story about meeting a woman who works at a convenience store. “I think she was an angel,” he says, and it’s meant to be taken literally.
Then he concludes. “I am one imperfect man saved by God’s grace,” he says, “but one who has a conviction on the importance of doing something about spending in Washington, D.C., and it’s my pledge to every one of you here, this day going forward, that I’m going be, try to be, the best congressman that I could have ever been —”
The rest is drowned out in applause. I turn to Chapur and start to ask her a question, and she puts her hand on my forearm as soon as I open my mouth.
“Thank you so much,” she says in her light accent as a few men begin to usher her away, “but it’s his night.”
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.