If we weren’t talking about a state’s chief executive, Mark Sanford’s five-day disappearance could be amusing. But when we’re talking about the South Carolina Governor left his office vacant without informing his staff or family of where he was going, it becomes downright bizarre. That Sanford’s staff thought it an appropriate response to say that the Governor was hiking somewhere along the Appalachia Mountain without offering any evidence that they had any other idea of where he was located along that 2,175-mile stretch are leaving me even more perplexed.
And the story could still get more complicated: We are now learning that Sanford’s car was tracked down at an Atlanta airport, leading the local media to diagnosis a hole in the Appalachia story. [Update: Well, we just learned that Sanford had flown to Argentina! He is back in South Carolina today.]
Wherever Sanford is, what I find most shocking is that Sanford apparently did not even inform those officials who should have been called to replace him - those officials who would have been tasked with taking major decisions had an unexpected crisis erupted - leading Republican Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer to voice his disapproval yesterday.
In defense of the Governor, state Senator Greg Ryberg argued today that Sanford would be able to quickly come back in case of emergency, just as he did in 2007 when he was on a trade mission to Estonia. “If they can contact him in Eastern Europe, then they can also contact him in a national park a few miles from here,” he said. Well, it was clear where Sanford was in Estonia; but the entire reason this is a story is that no one knows where he is and no one has been able to say whether the state police has been kept informed - so I find it unlikely Ryberg knows that Sanford is in “a national park a few miles from here.”
Don’t forget that we are talking here about a politician with 2012 ambitions - and one who was often mentioned as a potential running-mate for John McCain. Sanford’s refusal to accept part of Barack Obama’s stimulus funds made him one of the more visible leaders of the Republican opposition, and that positioned him well for a presidential run of his own. But I don’t see him surviving this incident, not only because he will be pilloried by late-night comedians but also because this raises questions about his judgment.
I never understood why former Senator Mark Dayton got so ridiculed for being the only lawmaker to close his office because of a terrorist threat a few years ago, but this is no longer about eccentricity - the buzz word that seems be most used to describe Sanford today. What we’re talking about is whether you can be trusted in an executive position, and a Governor’s leaving his post without informing anyone he was doing so is just such formidable material for Sanford’s opponents to use if he seeks national office.
What’s also interesting in this story is the deep rifts it reveals within South Carolina’s Republican Party. Here’s a state where Democrats have been very low, but the GOP has managed to create political competition within itself. It’s well-known that Sanford is detested by many Republican legislators because of his inflexible style and his strict opposition to earmarks (he once sent live pigs to the state legislature to denounce pork-barrel spending) but he has also attracted the enmity of officials in non-legislative positions like Lieutenant Governor Bauer. (That explains why Bauer was so willing to denounce a Governor of his own party yesterday.)
Not only has this made for fireworks in South Carolina government but it also makes the GOP’s gubernatorial primary one of 2010’s potentially most explosive contests. Sanford is term-limited. Democrats are unlikely to put up much of a race, which will surely make the GOP primary that much more ferocious.
Bauer is already running, as is arch-conservative Rep. Greshman Barrett. Iit looks like the Sanford-wing of the party could be represented by Rep. Nikki Haley, one of the Governor’s rare allies within the legislature. If she does enter the race, the primary could be a replay of all the clashes that have divided the state GOP during the past 8 years - and you can now add Sanford’s disappearance to the list of divisive episodes.
Indeed, while many Republicans are willing to attack Sanford quite viciously today, those who are defending him are even more vehement. State Senator Ryberg, for instance, blasted Sanford’s critics as elitists insiders who are looking to let Columbia burn:
What is this bizarre obsession with security? It reeks of elitism — one that pervades South Carolina government at all levels. South Carolina legislators should spend less time worrying about bodyguards and more time worrying about the double-digit unemployment and reckless spending that really matters to the people who pay for the perks and status symbols of the legislators.
Another politician whose political career could be endangered by new scandals and controversies is Rep. Vern Buchanan of Florida. First elected in 2006, Buchanan easily won re-election in 2008 despite allegations that he had pressured former employees to donate to his campaign. Now, The Tampa Bay Times is out with a lengthy report documenting new allegations that Buchanan might have to face.
In 2008, a registed Democrat with no political history and who had recently filed for bankruptcy donated $19,000 to Buchanan’s campaign and to the state Republican Party. He is now denying having given that money in good faith and saying that Timothy Mobley (a man whose companies has ties to Buchanan) offered to reimburse him for his contribution. That sort of maneuver is banned by federal law, and we’ll have to see how the story unfolds since it ties in to allegations Buchanan has faced in the past.