MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. – Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford on Tuesday cleared another hurdle in his bid for political redemption, defeating a former Charleston County council member to win the GOP nomination for the U.S. House seat he held for three terms.
"It's been a very long journey. And in that journey I am humbled to find ourselves where we find ourselves tonight," said Sanford, whose political career was derailed four years ago when, as sitting governor, he disappeared from the state only to return to acknowledge an extramarital affair with an Argentine woman.
That woman, Maria Belen Chapur, and Sanford are now engaged. She appeared at Sanford's side during his victory speech, smiling and applauding the former governor, who thanked her for being long-suffering while he was campaigning. She did not address the crowd.
"I want to thank my God," Sanford said. "I used to cringe when somebody would say, `I want to thank my God' because at that point I would think this is getting uncomfortable. But once you really receive God's grace and (have) seen it reflected in others you stop and acknowledge that grace and the difference He has made in my life and in so many lives across this state and across this nation."
With all of the precincts reporting, Sanford had about 57 percent of the vote in the 1st District to 43 percent for Curtis Bostic, the former county council member. The candidates were vying in the GOP runoff after they finished as the top two vote-getters in a 16-way GOP primary last month.
Sanford will face Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert, and Green Party candidate Eugene Platt in a May special election.
Colbert Busch released a statement late Tuesday saying "I look forward to a vigorous campaign that focuses on creating jobs, balancing our country's budget and choosing an independent-minded leader who shares the values of the great people of South Carolina."
Sanford, a former three-term congressman and two-term governor, said earlier Tuesday that the runoff would give a good indication whether voters have moved past his personal indiscretions.
"I'm both humbled and grateful for the response of the voters here tonight," he said later.
Sanford was a rising Republican political star before he vanished from South Carolina for five days in 2009. Reporters were told he was hiking the Appalachian Trail, but the then-married governor later tearfully acknowledged he was visiting Maria Belen Chapur, which he told everyone at a news conference announcing his affair. He later called her his soul mate and the two were engaged last year.
After the revelation of the affair, Sanford's wife Jenny divorced him and wrote a book.
Before leaving office as governor, Mark Sanford avoided impeachment but was censured by the Legislature over state travel expenses he used for the affair. He also had to pay more than $70,000 in ethics fines -- still the largest in state history -- after Associated Press investigations raised questions about his use of state, private and commercial aircraft.
The 1st District seat opened up after Republican Tim Scott was appointed to serve out the remaining two years of U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint's term. DeMint resigned to head The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Mark Sanford knows the district well, though the boundaries have changed somewhat. Elected to the seat in 1994 -- Jenny Sanford managed his first campaign and was a close adviser for most of his career -- he served three terms before voters elected him governor in 2002.
Jenny Sanford briefly looked at mounting a race in the Republican-leaning congressional district along the state's southern coast, but she decided against it, saying her job as a mother to the couple's four sons was more important.
In last month's GOP primary, Bostic collected only about 13 percent of the vote, narrowly defeating state Sen. Larry Grooms for second place. But he had less than two weeks to overcome Sanford's high name recognition.
During a televised debate, he took a jab at Sanford, saying "a compromised candidate is not what we need" in the race against Colbert Busch.
Sanford acknowledged he "failed very publically" but said he had done a lot of soul searching since then. He added, "Not since Jesus Christ was here has there been a perfect man or woman."
He said that after Scott was appointed, people kept encouraging him to run.
Sanford said they told him "here is your chance for you to learn, not only from your experience in Congress and the governorship, but more significantly what you learned both on the way up and the way down and apply it to what is arguably one of the great conundrums of our civilization, which is how do we get our financial house in order."
One of those in attendance at the debate was Barbara Boilston, a 49-year-old paralegal from Charleston. She talked about Sanford's indiscretions.
"I believe he has come full circle," she said. "I believe he has found peace with God. If God forgives, I forgive, and we should go forward and put this man back in office."
Bostic said earlier Tuesday that he liked his chances as he visited with voters in a suburban Charleston precinct.
"People dismiss us," the attorney and retired Marine said. "But we believe strongly the best way to win elections is through relationships and we have worked really hard to do that."
Bostic himself did not vote in the GOP runoff on Tuesday because he can't.
His residence near Ravenel, S.C., is in the 6th Congressional District, represented by U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, about 1,500 yards from the 1st District line. Bostic's law office, other property, church and children's schools are in the district. Under federal law, to run for the U.S. House, one only need to be a resident of the state in which the district is located, not the district itself.