May 7, 2013 / 10:05 AM / 6 years ago

South Carolina voters decide fate of disgraced ex-governor

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - Republican former Governor Mark Sanford, trying to make a political comeback after a sex scandal, was locked in a tight congressional race Tuesday with a newcomer who would be a rare bird in the South Carolina delegation: a woman and a Democrat.

Former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford (right) talks with voter Melvin Wright of Huger, South Carolina during an election day campaign stop at Huddle House restaurant in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina May 7, 2013. REUTERS/Randall Hill

A poll released on Sunday showed a close race between the political veteran and the first-time candidate, with Sanford leading 47 percent to 46 percent over Elizabeth Colbert Busch, whose brother is television political satirist Stephen Colbert.

The margin of error for the survey of 1,239 likely voters was 2.8 percentage points, according to Public Policy Polling.

Sanford, 52, is trying to regain the First Congressional District seat he held from 1995 to 2001, after finishing his second term as governor in disgrace in 2011 over his attempts to hide an extramarital affair.

He urged voters on Tuesday to trust him again.

“One event does not define your life,” Sanford told MSNBC. But he said that, if he loses, he will not run for office again.

A win for Colbert Busch, 58, would make her the first Democrat to represent the district since the early 1980s and only the second woman to be elected to Congress from South Carolina.

It would not, however, shift the balance of power in the House of Representatives, where Republicans have a majority, 232 to 201 with two vacancies.

The special election, which has gained national attention, was being held to fill the seat vacated by Republican Tim Scott when he was appointed to the U.S. Senate by Governor Nikki Haley in December.

Sanford trailed Colbert Busch by 9 points two weeks ago in a poll taken soon after revelations that Sanford’s ex-wife had accused him of trespassing at her home. Sanford said he went there to watch the Super Bowl with one of their four sons.

“Two weeks ago, a lot of Republicans were really unhappy with Sanford,” said Kendra Stewart, a political scientist at the College of Charleston. “But now I see them holding their nose on Tuesday and going to the ballot box and voting for someone they would rather not vote for. It’s going to be close.”

Sanford has been the subject of attack ads that accuse him of deserting the state in 2009 when the then-married governor tried to hide a six-day visit with his mistress in Argentina by saying he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Sanford paid more than $70,000 in fines for ethics violations that included using public money for personal travel to Argentina.

He subsequently divorced and is now engaged to the other woman, Maria Belen Chapur.

Colbert Busch last month hammered her rival over his personal transgressions at their only debate, and a previous poll had shown her with the lead.

Voter Sam Green, a 61-year-old retiree who cast his ballot at the same Charleston location as Sanford did, said he voted for “Mrs. Busch.”

“I’m a man,” Green said. “I’m a father. Mark Sanford did something that as a man, I can’t forgive him. A true man would not leave his family.”

Sanford has accused Colbert Busch of having ties to unions and national Democrats, who are unpopular in the Republican-leaning coastal district.

As he voted, Sanford told reporters he was “worn out and tired” but “guardedly optimistic” about his chances.

Colbert Busch cast her ballot at a middle school in Mount Pleasant. “We’ve got a phone bank,” Colbert Busch said. “We’re making hundreds of calls today. I’ve got a lot of work to do.”

In a statement, she urged voters “to send me to Washington to create good jobs, get our fiscal house in order and be a representative who they can trust.”

Slideshow (8 Images)

Her big blue campaign bus emblazoned with the message “Elizabeth Means Business” made two dozen stops in the last few days.

“The response has been incredible,” campaign spokesman James Smith said. “Especially the Republicans who come up and say ‘We’re voting for you.’”

Polls will close at 7 p.m. (2300 GMT).

Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Jane Sutton and Doina Chiacu

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