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Last night was actually noteworthy for those who follows elections because voters went to the polls in South Carolina to vote in the Republican Party runoff for the now-open House seat previously held by Tim Scott.

What made this even more noteworthy was the presence of former Rep. and ex-Gov. Mark Sanford who is best known for telling staffers he was “hiking the Appalachian Trail” when he was actually visiting his Argentinean mistress who he is now engaged to.  Sanford, though represents another case in which a disgraced politician got either a second chance or got to exit on their own terms following a potentially career-ending scandal.

This should be prefaced with the belief that I mostly believe a sex scandal should not equate to an automatic vacating of a seat.  In certain cases, it might be warranted (criminal activity, using political donations to keep an affair silent, etc.) but for the most part it is really none of our own business.

But there still remains a debate; what constitutes someone getting a second chance as opposed to fading in obscurity to only never be heard from again?  In many of the articles surrounding the South Carolina race, a common theme was that even though Sanford is toxic and not necessarily popular (though has high name recognition and deep pockets) he still won the race.  Everyone is familiar with Sanford’s story and it was only less than four years ago in which his affair was a front-page story.

However when looking at several political sex scandals over the past decade or more, a common theme has seemed to emerge from the woodworks when it comes to who survives and who does not.

It’s who you know.

Look at the following politicians that have had well-known sex scandals and see the ones who got to stay in the limelight.

  • Sanford, John Edwards, Bill Clinton, Anthony Weiner, Eric Massa, Eliot Spitzer, David Vitter, Christopher Lee, John Ensign, Larry Craig.

In that group you see a combination of both Democrats and Republicans, from a President in his second term to a Representative who just started serving their constituents.  When it comes to sex scandals, we can fully claim that it is indeed a bipartisan issue in which both sides are equally guilty.

Of that list only Vitter continues to serve in office even though it was revealed that he solicited prostitutes in the 1990s.  Of that list only Sanford, Ensign and Craig were the ones who got to retire when they wanted to (with Ensign resigning right before the 2012 election season got going so Dean Heller could begin his Senate career and Craig retiring at the conclusion of his term).  But perhaps most noteworthy, of that list, only Bill Clinton can be classified as an endorsement a politician would crave.

Now all the scandals are different in their own light as well.  No one would defend what John Edwards did and more than enough people could agree that while Bill Clinton cheated on his wife, his impeachment hearings was basically one giant partisan sideshow that wasn’t worthy of the nation’s time.

But look at the ones who continued to serve and notice the ones who were forced to resign.  Anthony Weiner, Edwards and Spitzer to a degree were all politicians who appeared to butt heads with the Democratic Party.  Weiner was a fiery, outspoken Representative who did have higher ambitions (NYC Mayor) but he often clashed with Nancy Pelosi behind close doors.  Edwards might have been a phony but didn’t really leave a great impression on John Kerry, who he shared a presidential ticket with in 2004, and ran more of an outsider campaign than Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama did in 2008.  Spitzer wasn’t popular in office, took on Wall Street banks, and his proposals for undocumented workers left Clinton in a bit of an awkward position in the run-up to the 2008 cycle.

Then look at the Republicans who survived in Craig, Ensign and Sanford.  Craig and Ensign were leaders in the Republican Senate with the latter being discussed as a presidential candidate in 2012.  Craig, who brought the phrase “wide stance” into the national dialogue, even announced he would withdraw his resignation after he offered to resign.

Sanford is a bit of the same as well.  He was the chair of the Republican Governor’s Association, a potential 2012 candidate and one who seemed to be climbing up the steps in his own party.  While he was censured and dismantled, he did not go away.  Sanford immediately got a TV gig on Fox News after his term expired in South Carolina and obviously was able to carry out political ambitions.

Why David Vitter was allowed to continue serving will always bother me but it makes sense when you consider if he did resign, the Democratic Governor or Louisiana would’ve likely appointed a fellow Democrat.  Vitter has continued to cozy up to party leadership to this day.

Again though, if we are going to talk about a politician in a sex scandal; look for how prominent they are.  It should be no surprise, in any occupation in the world, that the people who tend to survive are the ones who may not be the most trustworthy but who are friends with the more influential people.

Still, it’s always interesting food for thought.

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