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Thursday, June 21, 2018

WASHINGTON — “I want to publicly acknowledge God’s role in all of this,” declared a victorious Mark Sanford as he celebrated an unlikely political rebirth Tuesday night with a sermon praising the Supreme Being and the many “angels” who helped the once-disgraced former governor along the way.

Perhaps the Almighty did inspire those who drew the boundaries of South Carolina’s 1st congressional district. They packed it with so many Republicans that Sanford was able to engineer a comeback in the polls by debating a flat piece of cardboard bearing the image of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Voters in the Lowcountry may have been weary of a man who made a national spectacle of himself by covering up an affair when he was chief executive and then hanging around in office. But when called to arms against liberals and spending and big government, they were prepared to forget Sanford’s hike on the Appalachian Trail, the one that never happened but was his attempt at a false alibi for being in Argentina to see his lover-now-fiancée.

His Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, tried everything she could to shove party and philosophy out of the voters’ minds and keep them focused on the man they had once loathed and laughed at.

She made herself relatively scarce when it came to campaign appearances and her advertising was out of a Chamber of Commerce promotion. “Elizabeth knows jobs” was the opener on a spot that touted her as a “Charleston businesswoman” and spoke of the importance of math and science — hard to argue with that. She closed by telling voters: “I’m running for Congress to create jobs in South Carolina. That’s what I know.”

What she and her handlers did not know, or hoped wasn’t true, was how deep our regional and partisan divisions are. You can run from ideology, but you can’t hide. Ironically, it is Colbert Busch’s brother Stephen Colbert who became one of the era’s most entertaining and astute political satirists by understanding the power of ideology. You might say that Sanford’s whole campaign was drawn from a Stephen Colbert sketch.

And, yes, this was South Carolina. Remember that when Newt Gingrich ran for the Republican presidential nomination last year, he won only two primaries: in his home state of Georgia, and in the state where the Civil War began. It’s funny, by the way, that Sanford’s full-page ad defending his visit to his ex-wife Jenny’s house in violation of a court order referred to the battle of the Alamo but misstated the year it happened as 1863. This would move that fight to the death into the middle of the War of Northern Aggression, as some Southerners still see it. Was this evocative error entirely accidental?