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S.C. Gov.: Sanford -- The "Maverick" Incumbent?

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's biggest rivals during his first four years in office have not been Democrats but rather members of his own party.

Gov. Mark Sanford
Gov. Mark Sanford speaks during the dedication of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Officers Memorial earlier this month. Can Sanford run for reelection as an "outsider"? (AP Photo)

Sanford has warred with GOP leaders in the state legislature over a wide variety of spending matters -- issuing a slew of vetoes on bills ranging from legislation to allow property owners to declare "fireworks free" zones to cutting nearly $100 million in proposed spending from the state budget. Sanford's frugality on spending issues led him to be named one of America's five worst governors by Time magazine.

Despite those clashes, Sanford's poll numbers remain remarkably strong as he heads into this year's reelection campaign. In a survey conducted by South Carolina GOP consultant Richard Quinn in October, Sanford enjoyed a 70 percent favorable rating and an 18 percent unfavorable rating among likely Republican primary voters. Those numbers eclipsed every other state and national Republican tested by Quinn, with the exception of Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (77/12).

With numbers like that, Sanford is a heavy favorite in the June 13 primary against physician Oscar Lovelace and the November general election. Three Democrats are seeking the chance to challenge him -- Former Rep. Ken Holland, state Sen. Tommie Moore and Florence Mayor Frank Willis. Most insiders see the contest as a two-man affair between Moore and Willis.

Jon Summers, communications directory at the Democratic Governors Association, predicted a "hard fought" race for Sanford this fall, adding that the Republican has "some serious problems as evidenced by the drop in his approval ratings" and his ignominious selection by Time.

While Sanford is a strong favorite for a second term, he faces an interesting dilemma about how best to position himself for the race. Through his relatively brief political career (eight years in Congress, four in the governor's mansion), Sanford has cultivated an image as a renegade politician, unwilling to participate in the go-along, get-along political culture. But can he once again run as a maverick when he's been the top-ranking politician in the state for four years?

Yes, according to Sanford, thanks to his many fights with the legislature. "If you got everything you wanted to get done, everything went your way, then it would be impossible to run as an outsider, a maverick relative to the system at large," Sanford said. But citing disagreements with legislators, Sanford said "voters see a natural disconnect between where you are and where the system is."

Asked whether he expected so much conflict from a legislature dominated by members of his own party, Sanford waxed philosophic. "Friction comes with change," he said. "In pushing for change, both parties have to come to fully understand where the other one is coming from."

Sanford seems perfectly willing to spend another four years battling the legislature over spending issues regardless of how that shapes his political legacy. Although his name is being bandied about as a potential candidate for the GOP ticket in 2008 (most likely a VP selection), Sanford insists that this reelection race is likely to be his last political campaign.

"If I was a betting man I would say absolutely no chance in the world," said Sanford when asked if he has national ambitions. He did muddy the water somewhat by adding, "I've learned to take it a day at a time."

For further reading on 2006 governors races, see Dan Balz's piece from Sunday's Post: Democrats Look for Historic Shift in Governors' Races.

Related Graphic: Party Control of Governorships.

Interactive Election Map: washingtonpost.com's Key Races of 2006.

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 28, 2006; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Governors  
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Next: '08 Primary Watch: McCain a Lock in S.C.?

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