Can Mark Sanford make a comeback? Right now, it appears quite possible.
The Republican ended his career as South Carolina's governor in disgrace after revealing in 2009 that he'd been surreptitiously spending time in Argentina visiting his mistress. But Sanford now hopes to return to his first job in politics, representing coastal South Carolina in the House.
"As soon as Sanford jumped in, he was the presumptive front-runner, simply because of his money and name recognition," says Scott Huffmon, a pollster based at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.
Sanford is seeking to replace Republican Rep. Tim Scott, who was appointed to fill Jim DeMint's vacated Senate seat. He has lots of company. Following Monday's filing deadline for the special House election, there are a total of 19 candidates in the race — 16 Republicans and three Democrats.
National media have focused on Sanford and a couple of celebrities by association: Teddy Turner, who is the son of media mogul Ted Turner, and Elizabeth Colbert-Busch, whose brother is Comedy Central star Stephen Colbert.
The race is "shaping up to be a little less C-SPAN and a little more Bravo reality show," according to the National Journal.
There could have been even more intrigue. Jenny Sanford — Mark's ex — took a look at running before ultimately taking a pass, telling reporters, "The idea of killing myself for the privilege of serving in a dysfunctional body under John Boehner when I have an eighth-grader at home just doesn't make sense to me."
"As much of a circus as it is, it could have been worse," Huffmon says. "Thomas Ravenel could have thrown his hat in. We could have had our convicted drug felon former treasurer against our Argentinian love boy."
A number of statewide officials in South Carolina have had ethics problems in recent years, but none of them has attained the notoriety Sanford earned for his affair. One local columnist worried over the weekend that the House race would bring the state nothing but "national ridicule."
"There can't be anyone in the district who doesn't know who he is," says College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts.
It's not certain that voters will grant Sanford another chance. But he has always been more popular with South Carolina voters than he has with media or other politicians. His stalwart fiscal conservatism is a good fit for the district, which he represented for six years before becoming governor, Huffmon says.
Given the large field, however, it's unlikely that Sanford can carry a majority of the vote, according to Knotts. That matters, because if no one wins a majority in the March 19 primary, the two top challengers will enter a runoff April 2.
"South Carolina has a long tradition of the second-place finisher surging ahead in the runoff," says Danielle Vinson, who chairs the political science department at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. "If Sanford comes in first and somebody else comes in second, then all of the not-Sanford votes go to that person."
Turner is little known in the district, and Colbert-Busch is running as a Democrat. Thus, it's quite likely, Huffmon says, that despite all the big names who are lined up for the race, the eventual winner could emerge from the ranks of candidates who are currently unknown outside the state, such as state Sen. Larry Grooms or state Rep. Chip Limehouse.
Because the district is so heavily Republican, the GOP's eventual nominee will be heavily favored in the May 7 general election.