Late last year, a few days before Christmas, former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford embarked on a delicate political mission. He went to see his ex-wife, Jenny.
It was only four years ago, in early 2009, that the couple were approaching their twentieth wedding anniversary and Sanford, a popular two-term Republican governor, was laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign. That was when, one afternoon in the governor’s mansion, Jenny went searching through some of her husband’s work papers and discovered a printed e-mail exchange between Mark and Maria Belén Chapur, the Argentine former television journalist with whom he was having an affair. (A sample of Sanford’s correspondence to Chapur: “I could digress and say that … I love your tan lines or that I love the curves of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of night’s light.”) The rest of the world came to learn of Sanford’s infidelity five months later, at a surreal press conference in the South Carolina capital’s marble rotunda. There, Sanford admitted that he had not been “hiking along the Appalachian Trail,” as his office had told reporters who’d been inquiring about the awol governor’s whereabouts, but rather he had “spent the last five days of my life crying in Argentina” while visiting Chapur and “trying to get my heart right.” Sanford’s marriage was soon over—Jenny and the Sanfords’ four boys moved out of the governor’s mansion, and she filed for divorce—and so, it seemed, was his political career. By the time he left office at the end of his second term in 2011, Sanford recently told me, “I genuinely thought that was it for me in politics, and I don’t think it would take a rocket scientist to come up with that conclusion.”
But last December, Sanford says, a “rather miraculous chain of events” occurred: South Carolina senator Jim DeMint announced his resignation; then Governor Nikki Haley appointed as DeMint’s successor Congressman Tim Scott, who represented South Carolina’s First District—the same congressional district Sanford represented from 1995 to 2001 and whose vacant seat would be filled through a special election, with party primaries in March and the general election in May. Sanford began to prepare for a return to politics. The electoral sprint, he realized, would favor a candidate who started with high name recognition and deep coffers, and he has both.
So does Jenny. A former Lazard vice-president who gave up her banking career to raise a family, Jenny Sanford was a popular First Lady in South Carolina. Her political appeal deepened in the wake of her marriage’s implosion, as she became a Palmetto State version of Hillary Clinton, albeit one who did not stand by her man and did write a score-settling memoir. (A sample from Staying True: “Mark joined me at one Lamaze class before deeming it a waste of his time since, as he explained, ‘I’ve spent many long nights helping cows give birth and I know what to do when the baby gets stuck.’ ”) Although she’s never held elected office, Jenny had been included on Haley’s short list of potential DeMint replacements. When she didn’t get the appointment, people immediately began mentioning her as a possible candidate for the newly open congressional seat. As an heiress to a power-tool fortune, she would even be able to self-finance. There was the distinct prospect of a “Sanford vs. Sanford” campaign.
Since their divorce, the Sanfords have barely been on speaking terms; when they do talk, it’s usually about the boys. But Mark went to meet with Jenny at her house this past December to discuss the congressional race. As he later explained it to reporters, he wanted to be magnanimous. “I sat down with her on the porch,” he told one, “and said, ‘If you have any thoughts about running for this, then I’m out, because I can’t think of anything more disastrous than for a husband and wife to run against each other.” He explained that it was only after he’d ascertained that Jenny wasn’t going to run that he decided to proceed with his campaign.
But Mark wanted more than just his ex-wife’s disavowal of interest. When he first ran for Congress in 1994, he installed Jenny as his campaign manager. He did this for reasons of economy—“You’re free,” he told her at the time—but she proved a natural at the job. She blossomed into a shrewd political strategist, running Mark’s subsequent campaigns and becoming his top adviser. Will Folks, a former Sanford press secretary, says, “There’s absolutely no way he would have ever won the congressional seat or been governor without her.”