CHARLESTON, South Carolina (CNN) — Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford on Tuesday revived his once-dead political career by winning the special election for an open U.S. House seat that he previously held for three terms.
With all votes counted, Republican Sanford led Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch by 54%-45%.
Once considered a possible presidential candidate, Sanford left the governor's office at the end of his term in 2010 having admitted to an extramarital affair and under a cloud of ethics violations. He represented the district in Congress for six years before being elected governor.
Before the race, businesswoman Colbert Busch was best known as the sister of Stephen Colbert, host of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report."
Sanford won all five counties in the district, including Charleston, his home base but also Democrats' best hope, and Beaufort, home to Hilton Head, where some Democrats hoped older voters would be turned off by Sanford's scandals and just stay home. Colbert Busch won absentee ballots, but that was not enough.
"Turnout was very large for a special election," said CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. "Roughly a quarter of the 18-plus population voted, more than 140,000 votes total. That seems to have helped Sanford. Low turnout would have meant a lot of Republicans were reluctant to vote for him and wouldn't vote for a Democrat. High turnout turns that around -- plenty of Republicans who had misgivings about him came out to vote anyway."
Sanford spent the last day of what could have been his last race making 10 campaign appearances in the district. Colbert Busch, meanwhile, parked her campaign bus and instead made calls to voters from a campaign phone bank.
Although the district has been in Republican hands since 1981, polling showed the race to be a toss-up.
Sanford was very open about the affair on the campaign trail and made it the subject of his first TV commercial. But he said voters were not focusing on his past.
"I had a failing that was well chronicled and I think it has been important to discuss it. We've discussed it at length here in the 1st Congressional District, but I think it falls into this larger journey we're all on, which is that none of us are perfect, all of us have feet of clay, and this notion of redemption, of second chances, is part and parcel to the American way and we'll find out if it's part and parcel to this election tonight," Sanford told CNN Tuesday.
He said he knew redemption was in sight.
"I don't know whether I win or lose. But I'm at peace with sort of where I am of that larger notion of you go out, you try the best you can, and then the final verdict is in the good Lord and the voters' hands," Sanford said Monday.
Disappearance sank presidential hopes
Sanford was in his second term as governor in 2009 when he disappeared from public view for several days. At the time his staff claimed he'd been hiking the Appalachian Trail. He later admitted that he was in Argentina, seeing the woman with whom he was having an affair. He's now engaged to that woman.
The episode sank any hopes Sanford had of making a bid for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. Sanford and then-wife Jenny were divorced in 2010. He finished his second term as governor in January 2011, after being censured and fined tens of thousands of dollars for ethics violations, exiting to what many thought would be political obscurity.
But he beat 15 other candidates earlier this year to win the Republican nomination. And even with all his political baggage, he was considered the favorite in the race until last month, when court documents revealed his ex-wife had filed complaints against Sanford for trespassing on her property.
Sanford said he didn't want to leave his sons home alone while their mother was away. He's scheduled for a court appearance two days after the election.
Not long after the trespassing story broke, the National Republican Congressional Committee announced it was pulling out of the race and national Democratic groups announced they were throwing more money into the contest. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and independent pro-Democrat House Majority PAC combined dished out nearly $1 million to defeat Sanford.
Democrats tried to make affair an issue
The two groups, as well as Colbert Busch, highlighted the affair. At their only general election debate, Colbert Busch, an official with Clemson University's wind turbine drive testing facility, brought up Sanford's 2009 secret trip to Argentina to see his mistress.
"When we talk about fiscal spending and we talk about protecting the taxpayers, it doesn't mean you take that money we saved and leave the country for a personal purpose," she said sternly, looking directly at her opponent on stage.
Her campaign also aired a TV commercial that slammed Sanford, saying he used "tax dollars to visit his mistress in Argentina, disappeared for a week leaving no one in charge, betrayed all who trusted him, then lied to cover it up. Mark Sanford, it's a question of character."
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and House Majority PAC also spotlighted the affair in their final ads.
"I used to be for Mark Sanford, but not any more. He skipped town to be with his mistress on Father's Day. Sanford even asked his wife for permission to have the affair," said Mount Pleasant Republican voter Jennifer Stark in the House Majority PAC commercial.
Over the past month, another woman also entered the campaign spotlight: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Sanford and his campaign repeatedly tried to tie Colbert Busch to Pelosi, saying a vote for Colbert Busch would also be a vote for Pelosi, who has high negatives with Republican voters and who most likely would become House speaker again if the Democrats run the table and regain control of the chamber in next year's midterm elections.
"I've fought hard over the years to make South Carolina a better place to call home. But those efforts pale now against the larger battle for the direction of our country. Maybe that's why Nancy Pelosi and allies have spent more than a million dollars to defeat me. But this contest is bigger than them or me, it's about two different visions of how we restore America and reign in Washington spending," Sanford said, looking into the camera in a TV spot that started running district-wide last week.
Two weeks ago he even debated a cardboard cutout of Pelosi to call out Colbert Busch for not accepting more than one debate.
Asked by CNN if debating a cardboard cutout was a gimmick, Sanford responded "no," adding that "people got it. It was totally serious."
Sanford points to outside money for Colbert Busch
Sanford also repeatedly brought up the money that national Democratic groups recently poured into the South Carolina race.
"What it says is, whose voice do you carry when you go to Washington D.C.?" he said in the debate with Colbert Busch, pointing to the hundreds of thousands of dollars that national Democratic groups spent on the race.
Colbert Busch, responding to the Sanford criticism, sought to distance herself from Washington and from national Democrats.
"No one tells me what to do except the people of South Carolina's 1st Congressional District. So a victory for Elizabeth Colbert Busch is a victory for the people of South Carolina's 1st Congressional District," she said Monday, adding that two-thirds of her contributions have come from within the state.
Tuesday morning, Colbert Busch was very optimistic about her chances, sayingt "I am predicting victory."
While Sanford touted his fiscal conservative record, Colbert Busch campaigned as an independent centrist who may buck President Barack Obama. In a CNN interview, she highlighted where she doesn't see eye to eye with the president.
"I respectfully disagree with his budget," she said, adding that "we need to vote to repair" the president's health care law.
On gun control, Colbert Busch appeared to briefly go blank on the names of Sen. Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey, who wrote a proposal to expand background checks for gun buyers. But she did sound closer to the president's position, saying, "I am a defender of the Second Amendment but we should expand background checks."
The congressional seat became vacant when Rep. Tim Scott, who won re-election by 27 percentage points in November, was named by GOP Gov. Nikki Haley to fill the seat of Sen. Jim DeMint, who stepped down late last year to take over as the head of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
No Democrat has held the seat in more than 30 years.
"Colbert Busch was never going to run away with this. It's a plus-20 Republican district -- that Mitt Romney won by 18 points. The fact, though, that it's close, says more about Mark Sanford's negatives than Colbert Busch's positives," said Republican strategist Hogan Gidley, a former executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party.