When Senator Jim DeMint shocked the political world with his sudden announcement that he was resigning, he threw the South Carolina political establishment and beltway pundits into a frenzied search for an heir.
One of the names Governor Nikki Haley is considering appointing to the seat is the ex-wife of disgraced former SC Governor Mark Sanford, Jenny Sullivan Sanford.
Haley, the first woman to serve as Governor of South Carolina and second Indian-American governor in U.S. history, has said that she will not be naming merely a “placeholder” for DeMint’s seat, but someone who aligns with his vision and can defend the seat on their own two years from now, when a special election for the seat is called.
“Jenny Sanford’s appointment would be huge in several ways, not least of which would be the first female South Carolina senator from a party struggling to keep women voters,” said MSNBC Political Contributor and veteran of South Carolina politics, Jimmy Williams.
A graduate of Georgetown, a former Wall Street investment banker, and mother of four, Sanford is a savvy political strategist in her own right and knows the Palmetto State as well as (if not better than) anyone else in the running for DeMint’s seat.
She has confronted the challenges of South Carolina’s rough and tumble political world before, starting in 1994 when she managed her husband’s upstart campaign for Congress. Sanford went on to manage her husband’s winning Congressional and Gubernatorial campaigns.
Sanford is pragmatic about politics and has seen the dark and ugly side to political campaigns first hand.
“I look at the political landscape today, and I can still see dirty politics on display at every turn,” she said in her book Staying True.
“I know of no other place where people are so kind in person and their politics so mean,” Sanford told me last year in a pre-interview for Hardball to discuss the 2012 Republican Primary contest in South Carolina, which was becoming increasingly negative and personal at the time.
“Attack ads have worked here [in South Carolina] many times but they have also backfired when used merely to tear down another without simultaneously building up a positive message for a credible opponent,” she said.
She’s also no shrinking violet. Since leaving the governor’s mansion she has kept her toe in the waters of South Carolina politics, weighing into a contentious GOP primary in 2010 to endorse then State Representative Nikki Haley’s Campaign in succeeding Sanford’s husband, writing an op-ed praising Herman Cain’s bold proposals in last cycle’s presidential primary campaign, and even offering her own political analysis in a rare public appearance on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews.
Wives of Senators and Congressmen with little to no political experience themselves have succeeded their husband’s office. Some have served as a “placeholder” until the next election with the commitment not to campaign for the office, but many of them have chosen to wage campaigns of their own, which Sanford would be primed to do.
Hattie Caraway was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1931 after the death of her husband, Thaddeus Caraway, D-Ark., but defied conventional standards at the time by refusing to stand down from the special-election and sought the seat on her own in 1932, becoming the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate.
Margaret Chase Smith succeeded her husband Rep. Clyde Smith, R-Maine, in the U.S. House and then ran successfully on her own for the U.S. Senate, defeating both a sitting and former Governor in the Republican primary and going on to win the general election in 1948. Smith became the first woman to represent Maine in the Senate and the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress.
Jean Carnahan, the widow of Governor Mel Carnhan who was posthumously elected to the U.S. Senate in 2000, was appointed to his seat. Carnahan, like Carraway and Smith before her, had no political experience of her own but chose to campaign in the 2002 special-election and fill the remaining four years of her husband’s term. Carnahan lost by 22,000 votes in a squeaker to Jim Talent.
Jo Ann Emerson, R-Missouri, Mary Bono-Mack, R-Calif., Lois Capps, D-Calif., and Doris Matsui, D-Calif., all currently serving in the U.S. House Representatives had no political experience of their own prior to succeeding the deaths of their husbands and subsequently winning terms in their own rights. (Emerson announced her resignation from Congress last week and Bono lost in November after serving in the House since 1998).
While Jenny is the “ex” wife of a former governor—a unique category in and of itself— and lacks electoral experience of her own, a Sanford pick would be an unusually bold choice,
Leave it to Nikki Haley and Jenny Sanford to make history again. The first woman U.S. Senator from South Carolina is no small feat.
“In South Carolina we have elected the establishment candidates but we have also elected mavericks and unknowns,” Sanford said last year. “As you are aware I have personal experience on that front.”
When Mark Sanford announced his candidacy for Congress in 1993, his hometown paper, the Post and Courier noted that “Sanford had no previous political experience in elected office, no name recognition, and little backing.” Sixteen years later, Mark Sanford was so popular in conservative circles that he was being courted to run for President in 2012 and challenge Barack Obama.
Jenny Sanford’s lack of elected political experience should not play a role in whether she is appointed to the seat. ”What’s wrong with regular folks going out and getting involved in politics?” the Post and Courier asked in ’93.
Governor Sanford’s infamous political wounds were self-inflicted and fatal. At the time, his wife Jenny received notoriety and acclaim for defying the conventional methods of wronged political spouses by refusing to stand by her man.
“I had never considered myself to be a traditional political spouse,” Sanford said in Staying True. ”And this wasn’t the moment to start being one.”
Mark’s fall from grace sealed his political fate. But, Jenny Sanford is a survivor and her political future is still an open question and one that Governor Haley is seriously considering, for she would be no ordinary successor to Jim DeMint in the U.S. Senate.