South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford always demurred on the question of whether he'd run for the presidency. But the question of any presidential candidacy seemed to evaporate with his stunning press conference in the cavernous halls of Columbia's Civil War-era capitol building on Wednesday: "I've been unfaithful to my wife," he told a hushed press core five days after going incommunicado with staff and family.
Now that he's "created a fiction" about where he was for those five days-his staff told the press he was hiking the Appalachian Trail while he was actually in Argentina with his mistress-many are wondering not only if he will be able to finish his gubernatorial term, but has Sanford handed Democrats their first real chance at picking off a crucial Republican state in the next presidential election?
Presidential candidates typically tromp through the diners and back roads of South Carolina early in the election cycle-with its first-in-the-South primary contest, the small state gets big attention. When Election Day rolls around, voters have reliably gone Republican, often with the help of large numbers of evangelicals and social conservatives.
But the gap narrowed last year: Republican John McCain beat now-President Barack Obama by 9 points. Four years earlier, President George W. Bush bested Democrat John Kerry by 18 points.
In a state creeping toward the reach of Democrats, Sanford may have offered an extra push, according to GOP consultant and Clemson University political scientist Dave Woodard: "I think it certainly strengthens the Democratic candidate."
If 2012 seems far off, the next gubernatorial election in South Carolina is closer-less than 18 months away. If disgruntled voters pick a Democrat, the shade of South Carolina politics-and the state's voting patterns in 2012-could turn from red to blue.
That's not a far-fetched scenario: The top contender for the state's Democratic gubernatorial nomination is Vincent Sheheen, a popular state senator who amassed more than a quarter of a million dollars for his campaign in the first quarter of the year. Sheheen is Catholic and has openly talked about his Christian faith, a popular subject in South Carolina. And though he leans left on most issues, the 38-year-old family man has developed a reputation for a willingness to work across party lines, something Sanford never did.
A Democratic governor paired with a moderate state legislature could help hand the Democratic Party something they've longed for in the state: an electoral win. If other Southern states followed suit, Democrats could make major in-roads in a region many have considered unwinnable for the party.
In the meantime, Woodard says a Republican Party desperate for good leadership may have a more difficult time recruiting good candidates. An intense scrutiny coupled with painful scandal among socially conservative candidates like Sanford and Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) may scare off worthy conservatives: "I think candidates are just less likely to get involved in politics."
For South Carolina conservatives, Woodard says plotting a future may have to wait until the prevailing mood passes: "shock and dismay."