Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford addresses supporters in Charleston,… (Bruce Smith, Associated…)
WASHINGTON — Former Gov. Mark Sanford took a big step on the road to political redemption Tuesday, topping a large field of Republican candidates in the special election for a South Carolina congressional seat.
A onetime rising star in the GOP, Sanford sidetracked his career with an extramarital affair that became an international sensation. But in his first race since leaving the governor’s office two years ago, he finished far ahead of 15 Republican primary opponents, with almost three times as many votes as his nearest competitor.
Because he failed to win a majority of the vote, however, Sanford must compete in a primary runoff April 2. The winner of that contest will face Democratic nominee Elizabeth Colbert Busch in the May 7 general election.
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Sanford, who ran on his fiscal conservative credentials, received 36.9% of the vote and will be favored to win the runoff. A recount may be conducted to determine which candidate Sanford will face.
Curtis Bostic, a former Charleston City Council member who had the support of religious conservatives and home-schoolers, finished second, with 13.3%, based on complete but unofficial returns. Bostic, a personal injury lawyer, does not live in the district, although that is not required by federal law. He finished almost 500 votes ahead of state Sen. Larry Grooms, who had the support of two of South Carolina’s Republican congressmen and received 12.4%. State law requires an automatic recount when less than 1% of the votes cast separates competitors for a runoff, though Grooms could choose to waive it.
From the start, Sanford was the front-runner in the packed field. He publicly acknowledged his past transgressions in TV ads and at virtually every campaign stop. Sanford is no stranger to the area’s voters, having represented the coastal district, which includes portions of the Charleston region and nearby barrier islands, during the 1990s before he served two terms as governor.
He gained notoriety in 2009 after disappearing from the governor’s office for several days, leaving his staff to tell the public that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. It turned out he actually was visiting his mistress in Argentina, which led to Sanford’s tearful confession at a news conference and the largest ethics fine in state history.
Though Sanford and his wife, Jenny, divorced, he tried unsuccessfully to get her to run his current campaign. The former governor has said that he and his Argentine girlfriend, a onetime TV reporter, are engaged.
Several state legislators, a former sheriff and a onetime George W. Bush White House aide were among those splitting the vote on the Republican side. Teddy Turner, a political novice and son of media mogul Ted Turner, finished fourth with just less than 8%.
Busch, the easy winner of Tuesday’s Democratic primary, is a civic activist who has already received help raising money from her brother, comedian Stephen Colbert.
Regardless of who wins the GOP nomination, Busch will be the underdog in the heavily Republican district.
The House seat came open when Republican Rep. Tim Scott was appointed to fill the seat of Sen. Jim DeMint, who resigned to become the head of a conservative foundation in Washington.
Turnout on Tuesday was light, with three times more ballots cast in the Republican primary than in the Democratic race. A little more than 15% of the voters in the district cast ballots.