Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) will make his campaign to return to Capitol Hill official today, as he aims to recapture the House seat he first won nearly two decades ago.
The former lawmaker, who represented the coastal 1st District for three terms in the mid-1990s and later served two terms as governor, is expected to be one of as many as a dozen GOP candidates competing to fill the House seat of now-Sen. Tim Scott (R) in a March 19 primary.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) tapped Scott for the Senate vacancy created earlier this month when Sen. Jim DeMint (R) stepped down to head the Heritage Foundation.
While it remains to be seen how the field will shape up -- and whether Sanford can overcome the scandal from 2009 when he claimed to be hiking the Appalachian Trail, only to have flown to Argentina to visit his then-mistress and now-fiancée -- Republicans are widely expected to hold the House seat in a May 7 general election.
Sanford, 52, who once was thought to have White House ambitions, will start the primary with high name recognition and a respectable $121,000 in his campaign account, left over from his earlier congressional career.
Conservation Voters of South Carolina Executive Director Ann Timberlake noted that several of the announced candidates, including Sanford, state Rep. Chip Limehouse (R) and philanthropist Teddy Turner (R), son of media mogul Ted Turner, have expressed support for conservation measures or water quality issues.
"The 1st Congressional District has the strongest set of constituent support for conservation in the state," Timberlake said, noting the area's dependence on agribusiness and outdoor recreation. "There's a tradition along the coast of electing folks who are strong on the environment."
She later added: "It's pretty bipartisan to be a land conservationist in South Carolina."
South Carolina environmentalists generally praised Sanford's tenure as governor -- both the CVSC and the state Sierra Club endorsed his bid for a second term -- citing his support for land conservation efforts, particularly along the coastline, where clashes often occur over the development of new homes and resorts.
"Sanford did really well, and his reputation was well-deserved in supporting measures like the land conservation bank, which is a state-funded entity that gets a small portion of real estate transactions to leverage land conservation and open space conservation," said Bob Guild, a leader in the Sierra Club's South Carolina chapter and an environmental law attorney.
Although Sanford was widely recognized as a fiscal conservative during his tenure, including his effort to reject federal stimulus spending, Guild added that those stances often aligned with his organization's own goals.
"The other side of the coin with Sanford is he really is a libertarian, and a tea partier before the tea party came around," Guild said. "We found that attractive in some respect, because many of the worst projects we contend with only thrive because of unholy alliances with the government."
Timberlake echoed that thought, citing Sanford's objection to a $2.2 billion coal-fired power plant in 2009, when he cited concerns about both the construction cost due to federal regulations and pollution in the state.
During his second term, Sanford established an advisory committee to study the consequences of global warming in the Palmetto State, and in 2008, he called for voluntary efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the state.
But Guild said he couldn't predict how Sanford might perform if he manages to recapture his former seat in Congress.
"Times have changed, but I do think that he comes from a position where, unlike the class of 2010 that has been knee-jerk anti-government, anti-regulatory, almost hostile to the environment ... Sanford doesn't really fit that mold. Whether he would adapt to that or not is an open question," Guild said.
During his previous tenure on Capitol Hill, Sanford received steadily declining marks from the League of Conservation Voters on its annual scorecards, from a high of 62 percent in his freshman term to 30 percent in his third term. Sanford did not seek re-election, adhering to a self-imposed term-limits pledge.
But during the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., last year, Sanford told Greenwire that his fellow Republicans needed to focus more on environmental concerns, which received little attention during the weeklong gathering.
"I would say the economy and by extension energy is out front and center at this convention," Sanford said in the August interview. "Republicans ignore the larger issue of the environment at their own peril" (Greenwire, Aug. 30, 2012).
Still, Timberlake questioned whether Sanford will be able to overcome the stigma of the 2009 affair, which made him the butt of many jokes at the time, even as he avoided impeachment in the South Carolina Legislature.
"It's very difficult to think of him as a credible candidate for Congress," Timberlake said.
Still, Guild said the state Sierra Club would likely consider endorsing Sanford -- noting that the group would need to evaluate all candidates -- given its history with the lawmaker. The Sierra Club has previously endorsed Democrat Linda Ketner, a supermarket heiress who made a failed 2008 bid for the seat and may run in the special election.