WASHINGTON — At a recent event in South Carolina, Teddy Turner was working the room.
Turner, one of sixteen Republican candidates for the first congressional district seat, has unique reasons to be confident about his prospects: Although he’s new to politics, he’s the son of media mogul Ted Turner, and some Republicans consider him a dark horse to win his party’s primary.
But when the frontrunner among his opponents entered the same room where Turner mingled with guests, Turner quickly turned self-deprecating.
“Welcome to the Mark Sanford show!” Turner said, according to a Republican aide who was later informed of the exchange.
In a congressional race attracting national attention for a host of reasons, not least among them that comedian Stephen Colbert’s sister Elizabeth Colbert-Busch is running as a Democrat, Sanford is a main attraction.
It’s unclear whether the spotlight will be more blessing than curse for the former South Carolina governor, who resigned in 2009 after he admitted to an affair and secret travels to Argentina to see his mistress. After the scandal, plenty of people wrote the eulogy for Sanford’s political career.
But he’s not dead yet.
In his first ad, released earlier this week, Sanford sought to address his biggest issue head-on in a straight-to-camera monologue.
“More recently, I’ve experienced how none of us go through life without mistakes,” he said in the ad. “But in their wake we can learn a lot about grace, a God of second chances, and be the better for it.”
There are a host of other Republicans hopefuls ready to stake their campaigns on voters not giving Sanford a second chance: State Sen. Larry Grooms, who raked in endorsements from Reps. Jeff Duncan and Mick Mulvaney on Thursday; Curtis Bostic is a member of the Charleston County Council, just as Sen. Tim Scott was before he won the first congressional district seat; Turner has hired former Sanford communications director Chris Drummond as a senior advisor, an indication his bid is serious.
“Frankly I don’t even know everybody in it, so it’s really wide open,” South Carolina GOP chairman Chad Connelly said of the broad Republican primary field. He added, “We can pretty much be assured there will be a runoff.”
The runoff will be held between the top two Republican vote-getters — or, Mark Sanford plus one.
“Everyone’s running for second place except Mark,” one South Carolina Republican explained, pointing to internal polling numbers that have shown Sanford leagues ahead of all other comers.
Should Sanford prevail in the primary runoff, the Republican source gave the former governor a 60 percent chance of winning in the general-election matchup against Colbert-Busch, who will likely be a formidable opponent, in no small part due her celebrity brother’s fundraising potential.
Helping Sanford’s chances in a general election: He has represented South Carolina’s first district in Congress before, and the district has become slightly more conservative since it was redrawn during the redistricting process.
And his negatives are already polling high enough that his campaign could be more impervious to negative advertising than others.
There are still a number of wild cards, such as whether outside groups like Club For Growth will choose to endorse in the Republican primary, and whom.
And other candidates of both parties will push hard to contrast their sterling morals to Sanford’s past shortcomings.
“This race is going to be a spectacle over the next few weeks,” one GOP campaign aide said.
In three weeks, the Republican field will converge on Charleston, where the state Republican Party will hold a debate a few days before the primary vote. The discussion will almost certainly turn at one point to the former governor’s past.
Sanford does not fear this moment.
A few months ago, Sanford spoke privately with a friend about what his future might hold and whether it would involve politics. Even at that early stage, well before any South Carolina congressional seat had opened up, Sanford was eager “to be part of the public debate again,’” the friend said.
Sanford knew that a return to the political arena would dredge up his past scandals — but he didn’t care.
“It’s not going to get any worse,” the friend recalled Stanford saying. “I’ll have to admit I failed my kids, failed my wife? I’ve already done that.”