A few weeks ago, former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford's campaign seemed a lost cause. His past scandal and current woes seemed too great a burden to overcome. Last night, however, Sanford handily won a U.S. House seat, besting Elizabeth Colbert Busch by more than nine percentage points (54 percent to 45 percent) in a special election.
While Democrats, after sinking substantial sums into the race, are likely both disappointed and somewhat surprised, the electoral history of congressional members embroiled in scandals has long suggested that taking out Sanford would be a tough task. Most prior political science research has shown that while incumbents (Sanford was about as close to an incumbent as a challenger could get) take a hit in their popular vote share for being involved in a scandal, most are also re-elected to Congress.
My own past research has found that between 1966 and 2002, a full two-thirds of incumbent members tainted by scandals who chose to run won their re-election campaigns. The reason for this is actually fairly simple: most voters would rather have a representative they agree with, even if that person's character is flawed, than they would have a morally perfect representative they disagree with.
In fact, this latter scenario is a nightmare for most partisans because not only do they end up with a representative they disagree with, but they get an incumbent whose character makes it difficult to kick them out of office in the future. As such, voters are apt to "hold their nose" and vote for their fellow partisan.
Clearly, this is what happened yesterday. The scandal cost Sanford about 10 percent of the vote (Romney won the district by about 20 percent), but it didn't cost him the seat. And though typically Republicans are hurt more by sex scandals than Democrats, and Democrats are hurt more by monetary scandals than Republicans, it's fairly easy to understand why, given the partisan leanings of the district, Sanford's experience was not much different from Rep. Charles Rangel's, D-N.Y., recent electoral history: a tougher primary than a general because, for the most part, primary elections are where character counts.
While it likely would have been better for the Republican party for Sanford to have lost the special election, so that it could put forward a less controversial candidate to claim the seat in 2014, the reality is that South Carolina's first congressional district leans too heavily Republican for the voters to elect a Democrat. As Speaker John Boehner explained, "Just like any one of us or any of the 435 members of Congress, we don't get to choose who [our colleagues] are." Welcome to democracy where voters actually matter.