His protectiveness is considerable. Few of his friends have met Chapur more than a handful of times. “Mark’s just very private about Maria Belén,” says one, who has met Chapur once. “He doesn’t bring her up, and I don’t ask.” According to a friend of the Sanford family, three of his sons have yet to be introduced to their future stepmother.
One evening in February, Sanford appeared at a technical college in Beaufort for a candidate forum. It was the end of a long day, filled with stump speeches and interviews, and Sanford sunk into the overstuffed chair, donated by a local furniture store, that was set up onstage. Sitting across from a state representative, who was serving as interlocutor, he fielded questions that had come from the audience and which she read off file cards.
Most dealt with nuts-and-bolt issues, such as military spending and the creation of a federal sales tax. One questioner wanted to know whether Sanford thought “career politician” was “a derogatory term.” Of course it was, Sanford replied, reminding everyone that he had “self-term-limited” during his first stint in Congress—but also explaining that his previous congressional service offered him an advantage over the other candidates, since he’d keep his seniority and “jump ahead” of current congressmen who’d served fewer than six years. “This is very important in terms of the committee assignments you get and in terms of actually having the leverage to deal with leadership,” Sanford said, lapsing into Washington-talk.
Wherever possible, Sanford steered his answers toward his own difficulties. At one point, he began talking about the importance of empathy. “Unless you’ve felt pain at some level of life, whether it’s self-imposed or otherwise, I don’t think you have the same level of empathy for people who have gone through some level of suffering,” Sanford said. “I empathize with people at a level that I never did before in part because of some pain in my own life.”
Empathy is a dominant theme of Sanford’s campaign, and it came up in my own conversations with him. “I would argue, and again I’m not recommending the curriculum to my worst enemy, but if one fails publicly at something, there’s a new level of empathy toward others that could not have been there before,” he told me.
When I asked Sanford how that new empathy had changed his views on public policy—whether it had made him, for instance, more inclined to support public-assistance programs he’s long denounced as unnecessary—he said it had not. “Convictions are convictions,” he explained. His empathy is for other public figures recovering from sex scandals and personal humiliations. “I used to open the paper and think, How did this person do that? Now it’s all, But by the grace of God go I.”
His own embarrassment having dissipated (and processed into a talking point), Sanford is just beginning to absorb the other major fallout of his affair: his loss of Jenny. When he showed up on her porch last December, it was his final try in a years-long effort to somehow make room for both Jenny and Chapur in his life. His infidelity notwithstanding, it seems he never considered ending the marriage. Even after Jenny discovered the affair, he tried to find some middle ground that would allow him to preserve both relationships, begging for his wife’s permission to have visits—albeit non-conjugal ones—with his mistress. (On one occasion, for a trip to New York, Jenny granted it, on the condition that a friend serve as chaperone. “Sleep well,” the friend texted Jenny at the end of the evening. “He played by the rules.”)
This is the first campaign Mark has run without Jenny by his side and as his manager. Many of his old aides and allies have also declined to join him. His family, new and old, is looking on with some combination of disinterest, disapproval, and disbelief. And yet Sanford appears to be on track to winning—and enjoying himself for the first time in years. He swears his ambitions don’t go beyond Congress: “I’m not running for this office, so that I might get to another office.” But it’s also clear his self-confidence has been more than regained, and that he believes his new message, combining fiscal frugality and personal redemption, makes him a more formidable politician than ever.
A few hours before his appearance in Beaufort, Sanford was holding a question-and-answer session at a nearby retirement community. An elderly man grabbed the microphone and told Sanford that he’d seen him a few months back wow the host on a cable news talk show: “You blew him away with your intelligence, your common sense, and as the show was ending, he said, ‘You are really intelligent.’ ”
“I’m tensing up,” Sanford interjected. “There’s a ‘but’ here.”
The elderly man continued, “If we accept that as a fact, and considering how politicians are perceived in this country, why are you running for office?”
The seniors laughed and Sanford did, too. “Uh, well, I think I’ve already demonstrated the fact that I’m not entirely intelligent in all ways,” Sanford said to even greater guffaws. He paused for a moment to let the laughter subside. Then he started up again. “Going back to the reality of our shared human experience …”