Of course the best answer is both. However, after former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford won the Republican run-off in legislative district 1 (SC-1) there has been a good bit of debate on the above question, because, let’s be real, there are a precious few perfect candidates. Thus, we may be faced with a choice between a candidate with a few skeletons in the closet, but a relatively strong conservative voting record or squeaky clean candidate who may be more moderate in their politics (a “squish” in current parlance). Which one is better for the party becomes the question.
Let’s take a look at Mark Sanford to see if there is a straightforward answer, considering the he is the poster boy for the former type of candidate. There is no doubt that all things being equal, the more conservative candidate is preferable to the less conservative candidate (at least as far as conservatives are concerned). Sanford’s conservative record as a former Congressman as well as governor is generally not disputed; he is generally regarded as a consistent conservative. However, he does have an elephant-sized blemish in his personal history: for six days in June, 2009, Sanford’s whereabouts were unknown. It turns out that he was in Buenos Aires, Argentina seeing a woman with whom he was having an affair. Not to rehash the political fallout from the affair (see a summary here), but suffice it to say that is was thought that any political future Sanford may have had was over.
If there was no extra-marital affair, there is little doubt that Sanford would be universally embraced; however, as Politico reports, this baggage has caused fellow republicans and women to dislike him:
- Sanford’s support among women is in the tank. According to a Public Policy Polling survey released last week, nearly 60 percent of female voters have an unfavorable view of the former governor. Women make up 55 percent of registered voters in the district.
To repair his battered image, the former governor has spent his campaign on casting himself as a figure of repentance and redemption. That makes criticizing an opponent — which he didn’t have to do in the primary — very hard to do.
- The fact that his opponent is a woman further complicates Sanford’s task.
“It’s going to be virtually impossible for Mark Sanford to attack Colbert Busch. It’s extremely tricky political territory for several reasons,” said Hogan Gidley, a former South Carolina Republican Party executive director.
“One, Sanford can’t effectively execute an apology tour and consistently be on the attack. Two, any political attack on Colbert Busch would be used against Sanford and the party as proof of a perceived ‘war on women.’ Three, we have a huge problem right now with the women vote – so any candidate perceived to be one who disregards women is going to face issues getting votes. Sanford could overcome these things, but it will be very difficult in the current political climate.”
So given these difficulties, which were foreseen prior to his decision to run for the House, would it have been preferable to support a candidate that had an exemplary personal/family history, but was more “squishy” when it came to promoting and voting on conservative principles…say Jeb Bush, another former governor, for example (Mitt Romney has been beaten up enough already)? With a Sanford, you pretty much can expect a conservative vote each time, but with a Jeb Bush type, you’d never know what you’d get.
The argument for someone like J. Bush is that it would be expected to be an easier victory in a heavily Red state and district, and his personal history would not offend anyone. A Sanford on the other hand, would have a harder path to victory, and his baggage would be off-putting, especially to “social cons.” Then again, what good would a victory do, if the winner could not be counted on when a crucial vote was needed? It sounds a lot like “winning for winning’s sake.”
There is also the redemption angle that Sanford is pushing for this race. If he is sincere (and I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as a Christian), that could make all the difference in a general election. CBS picks up on this as well:
Sanford, for his part, has looked to mitigate this by addressing his issues head on, asking for forgiveness and appearing with his new fiancée at his victory speech last night, clearly looking to move past it and make this a race about conservative issues.
Redemption is a powerful theme, especially for Christians (and even more so for conservative Christians). As Aaron Gardner observed when Newt Gingrich had pulled ahead of Mitt Romney n the 2012 primaries:
“I think much of Newt’s appeal is that he is on a journey of redemption, and the people want to believe they are as well. His conversion, and the broader idea of Americans being able to bounce back. His story fits the mood. You add the redemption theme to Newt being able to appear confident and communicate ideas to people, and you have a result like SC. Mitt, on the other hand, has no redemption story because to repudiate any past position is to admit he was wrong. In the end, Newt is more optimistic while being honest and that goes a long way in building trust. Mitt isn’t getting that benefit.”
Romney, in other words, is the diligent older brother, the one who has behaved himself all his life and just can’t understand why he doesn’t get more credit.
Newt? Newt’s the prodigal son–a sinner like everyone else.
Replace Newt with Sanford, and you get the idea. Everyone has sinned and fallen from time to time, and they may identify with Sanford if he demonstrates that he is truly asking for forgiveness and is seeking redemption. When it comes to push and shove, I think most Americans would have a hard time letting a past discretion define a person for the rest of his or her life. However, given the size and recent occurance of that indiscretion, this may be a difficult task.
One other thing to consider, does this sort of “sex scandal” really matter to public these days? As a barometer of public opinion, one could look to the underage prostitution scandal surrounding Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ). The story his alleged sexual trysts with underage girls in the Dominican Republic broke right before the 2012 election, but he still won with 58% of the vote. Granted, that was a Democrat in a highly blue state; and Democrats tend to view things a bit differently than Republicans, but the fact that there have been no significant calls for him to step down outside of conservative media, it could be argued that it is part of a broader trend that the public just doesn’t view these scandals as very scandalous any more.
To be sure, Sanford is a polarizing figure, from Michelle Malkin’s response of “Ugh” to his primary victory to blogger Cosmoscon’s “I was upset with his behavior but since he won the primary, he is who I’ll support over the Democrat” to “Gay Patriot” Bruce Carroll’s “I’m happy to help him win!” One thing is for certain, Sanford put himself in a position for the voters in South Carolina to make a decision on him (and his baggage); ultimately it is their decision and theirs alone (one a side note, leftists tend to rally around a flawed candidate once he or she makes it to the general election; conservatives tend to continue to eat their own…you can read my attempt to explain this phenomenon here).
But in the larger picture, if this was happening in your congressional district, or even with a presidential candidate, would you support the consistently conservative candidate with baggage, or an unreliable conservative with no baggage?