CHARLESTON, S.C. — After getting a few hours’ sleep, Mark Sanford made a victory lap Wednesday morning. He showed up on several national television news programs not only as the newly elected congressman from South Carolina’s First District, but also as a symbol of a political comeback many here and across the country thought could never happen.
Still, he preferred to talk about fiscal policy in Washington more than his successful strategy for giving new life to a political career many thought was over.
“I wouldn’t presume to give anybody else advice,” he said on CNN.
Mr. Sanford, the former governor whose career and marriage fell apart after he disappeared for six days in 2009 to visit his lover in Argentina, easily defeated his Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, in a special election Tuesday by more than 9 percentage points.
She had offered the first real chance the district had in decades to send a Democrat to Washington, something that hadn’t happened for nearly 30 years. The National Democratic Party and the House Majority PAC poured nearly $1 million into her campaign.
But it was not to be.
Mrs. Colbert Busch could not take even one of the five counties in the district.
That includes more liberal Charleston, whose Democratic mayor and several civic groups offered early support.
A surprisingly high turnout — nearly 30 percent — showed up for the special election, a figure that many believe helped him in a largely Republican district.
Political analysts will spend the day parsing the numbers and kicking around theories, but the simplest explanation is that Republicans did not want to send a Democrat to Congress, said Scott Buchanan, the executive director of the Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics.
And, it did not help that Mrs. Colbert Busch was a political neophyte who, in the only debate between the two and in interviews, appeared a very green candidate.
“There’s an old saying in politics,” Mr. Buchanan said. “You can’t beat somebody with nobody. Her campaign was just not effective. There’s nothing to replace experience. It was very obvious in the debate she was a first-time candidate.”
Supporters of Mrs. Colbert Busch grumbled about a gender gap, recent redistricting that removed some urban voters and the difficulty inherent in making a case for a more liberal and largely untested candidate in a conservative state and having only 10 weeks to do it.
“It proves how party loyal this state is,” said Madeleine McGee, who runs an organization for nonprofit groups in Charleston. She is also family
. Her sister is married to Stephen Colbert, the television comedian and younger brother of the candidate whose public support and fund-raising efforts helped Mrs. Colbert Busch gain national attention.
Others also wondered if Mr. Sanford’s deceit was overplayed by her campaign, which tried to appeal to women voters. And they praised Mr. Sanford for a polished ground game that drove voters to the polls.
After a short, upbeat concession speech Tuesday night, Mrs. Colbert Busch went home to spend time with her large, extended family. Her famous brother was not in town. He was in the editing room in New York working on his show, “The Colbert Report,” when he heard she had lost.
Mrs. Colbert Busch will head back to work at Clemson University, where she runs a wind power business development project. She has not decided if she will try politics again, said Ms. McGee.
“The disappointment is you begin to think you can help and you can do something for these people and then it’s disappointing when you can’t,” Ms. McGee said.
In his victory speech, Mr. Sanford promised to be a “messenger to Washington, D.C.” Then, after introducing one of his sons and his fiancée, Mariá Belén Chapur, who had just flown in from Argentina, he spoke of the redemption he had found on the campaign trail.
“I am an imperfect man saved by God’s grace,” he said.
For voters, his hawkish views on federal spending, his experience and his promise to fight President Obama outweighed any personal transgressions.
“He took a couple of years to reflect, and now he just wants to get back to work,” said Tom Lewis, 47, a Sanford voter who considers himself a libertarian. “They’ve just got to reel it in in Washington.”
Mr. Sanford’s political comeback could have been fashioned only by a veteran, as Mr. Sanford is. He has never lost an election, and from 1995 to 2001, he held the House seat he just won, back then riding a wave of Republican power led by Newt Gingrich and articulated by the party’s Contract With America.
The seat opened up in December when Gov. Nikki R. Haley appointed Representative Tim Scott, a favorite of the Tea Party, to replace Jim DeMint in the Senate. Mr. DeMint had stepped down to run the Heritage Foundation.
Mr. Sanford, who will have to run again in 2014 to keep the seat, easily won in a crowded primary field in March
. Still, it was never clear that he could overcome his transgressions, even though the district is populated with country club Republicans and more conservative Tea Party voters.
And then there was his opponent, a sympathetic woman roughly the age of his former wife, Jenny Sanford, with a famous brother, a compelling personal story as a single mother and a long track record as an executive in the maritime industry.
She was popular among the more centrist residents of Charleston County, which had supported President Obama twice but handed the victory to Mr. Sanford by less than two percentage points.
“We gave it a heck of a fight,” she said in her concession speech.
Throughout the campaign, she tried to invoke the word “trust” with regularity, but remained vague on issues and scant on public appearances that were not heavily orchestrated. But Mr. Sanford turned the race into a battle against Washington Democratic power brokers, especially the former House speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Tuesday’s vote proved that his approach worked.
And in the end, people here cared less about the controversy and more about government spending.
“We are not trying to elect the ‘how is your conscience’ candidate,” said Charm Altman, president of the South Carolina Federation of Republican Women. “We are trying to elect someone who can govern.”
Brad Mallett, 45, a local coffee roaster who was at Mr. Sanford’s packed victory party, put it more simply: “Everyone deserves a second chance.”