By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's admission today that he had an extramarital affair strikes another blow to the GOP's brand as the party of family values, particularly in a region of the country—the Deep South—that has become ever more critical to Republicans, who've lost ground recently in the Northeast and the West.
Outside South Carolina, "Sanford is most well known in states like North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, which are growing more competitive for Democrats," says Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who worked for Barack Obama and the Democratic National Committee during the 2008 campaign season. "This is devastating for the Republican Party in the very region where it has to make gains."
Fast on the heels of an admitted affair by Nevada Sen. John Ensign—another emblem of the GOP's values brand—Sanford's announcement also makes it harder for the national Republican Party to maintain credibility with the values voters who've been most loyal to it.
"As far as the Republicans go, this raises the issue of how marriage is treated by political leaders," says Wendy Wright, the president of the conservative group Concerned Women for America.
Belcher, the Democratic pollster, says the recent string of Republican sex scandals is redolent of the run-up to the 2006 midterm elections, when former House Leader Tom DeLay resigned after being indicted in a campaign finance investigation and Florida Rep. Mark Foley was caught sending lewd text messages to young male congressional pages. Both were Republicans, and Belcher, who was then pollster for DNC Chair Howard Dean, watched the Republican advantage on values issues shrink from more than 20 percentage points to around 5 points over the course of the '06 election cycle.
The Democrats won 31 seats in the House, regaining control of the chamber.
Belcher says he has not conducted national polls since last year's election. "But at this point, when it comes to values, the Republican brand has deteriorated more, and their hopes of making gains in the coming midterms has to be dramatically undermined," he says. "My guess is that we've now gone from a tossup on values with the Republicans to [Democrats] having at least a 4- or 5-point advantage."
Sanford, who was considered a potential 2012 White House contender, has long been a darling of "pro-family" religious conservatives. In the 2008 election, Christian right activists who were unenthusiastic about the Republican presidential field tried unsuccessfully to draft him as a presidential candidate.