CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Now that former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford has resurrected a once-promising political career by regaining his old House seat, he'll have to rebuild the reputation that once earned him praise as a possible presidential contender among colleagues.
The Republican preached fiscal responsibility during his three terms in Congress in the 1990s. But many lawmakers in office more than a decade later know him primarily as the two-term governor who tearfully admitted an affair with a woman in Argentina, which he initially covered up by saying he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. He later paid the largest ethics fine in state history for using state resources for personal travel.
On the campaign trail, he couldn't escape a past that for a time turned his name into a late-night punch line. But voters in the conservative congressional district along the South Carolina coast were willing to accept his promise to protect their pocketbooks and his message of personal redemption. Political observers say it won't be impossible for him to convince fellow lawmakers in Congress to do the same – even after national Republicans yanked funding from his campaign following recent allegations that he had been at his ex-wife's home without her permission, and other allies seemed to keep their distance.
That trespassing complaint was settled Wednesday, the day before the 52-year-old Sanford was to have appeared in family court to answer the allegation. In the settlement, Sanford admitted that on several occasions he violated the couple's divorce decree by entering Jenny Sanford's home without her permission.
The judge will withhold sentencing as long as Sanford complies with the decree in future. Sanford will also pay his ex-wife $5,000 in fees and court costs.
"If untowardly behavior were a disqualification, our parking problems up here would be over," said Republican political consultant Rich Galen. "I'm not sure he'll be welcomed with open arms, but he will be accepted as a member of the club."
Scott Buchanan, the executive director of The Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics, agreed that Sanford will have room to rebuild alliances.
"I don't want to say there will be no hard feelings but, let's face it, these politicians can cuss one another one day and be patting each other on the shoulders the next," Buchanan said.
Sanford defeated his well-financed Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert. She was a political novice who had never held elective office in South Carolina's 1st Congressional District, where Sanford had high name recognition and where voters hadn't elected a Democrat in years.
Although the race was expected to be close, Sanford captured 54 percent of the vote in the district that Republican Mitt Romney won by 18 points last November.
Sanford's past experience does give him an advantage in raising his profile once again – a key piece of which will include jockeying for committee assignments.
"He knows how the place works. That's a huge advantage," Galen said. "He knows how the game is played."
Sanford saw his political career disintegrate in summer 2009 when he disappeared for five days, telling his staff he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. He returned to admit in a tearful news conference he had been in Argentina with his mistress, Maria Belen Chapur. His wife and political ally, Jenny, later divorced.
Sanford and his former mistress are now engaged, and she flew from Argentina to be with him for his victory speech on Tuesday. Sanford later paid a $70,000 ethics fine, the largest in state history, for using public money to fly for personal purposes.
During the campaign, the National Republican Congressional Committee pulled support from Sanford's campaign after news surfaced he was in his ex-wife's house without permission. Sanford has said he went there on one occasion so his youngest son would not have to watch the Super Bowl alone.
Even some of Sanford's allies held him at arm's length during the campaign. U.S. Sens. Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham, both Republicans, issued endorsement statements a week before the special election. Republican Gov. Nikki Haley appeared at one Charleston fundraiser for her one-time mentor and did no other active campaigning.
All three have to run statewide campaigns next year and likely did not want to appear to be too close to Sanford, Buchanan said. However, that doesn't necessarily mean Sanford will be a pariah in Washington.
Galen said many will be impressed he was able to pull it off.
"These guys are looking at it and wondering, `How the hell did he do that?'" Galen said.
Ever since delivering his victory speech Tuesday night, Sanford has remained focused on one issue as he prepares to head to Washington: the economy.
"I have said from the beginning of this campaign we are indeed at a tipping point and if we don't get things right there will be real consequences for the American dollar, for our savings and for the American way of life," Sanford told more than 100 supporters at his victory party on Tuesday night.
Indeed, Sanford first raised his national profile by focusing on government spending after he was first elected in 1994. Known for his frugality, Sanford famously slept on a futon in his House office to save money. As governor, he brought two pigs – named Pork and Barrel – to the Statehouse to protest legislative spending.
As governor, he had enough star power to travel the country endorsing other Republican candidates. Whether he can ever reclaim that high stature remains to be seen.
"He's still going to have to continue through the wilderness, so to speak, before he gets back to that level of going around and endorsing candidates," Buchanan said.