COLUMBIA — Former S.C. first lady Jenny Sanford said Saturday that she considers herself a long shot to receive Gov. Nikki Haley’s appointment to the U.S. Senate seat that opens after Republican Jim DeMint’s resigns to run a conservative think tank.
Sanford said that she learned she was among five finalists on Tuesday – the same day the news broke to reporters – from a representative of the governor’s office. Sanford, who has never held elected office, said she did not seek the post.
“I said I was honored to be included on the list and I would seriously consider to serve if appointed,” the ex-wife of former Gov. Mark Sanford said. “Prior to this opportunity, I was not contemplating a run for office. This is different. It’s an appointment.”
Despite showing disdain for politics in her memoir “Staying True,” Sanford said she is prepared to run in a 2014 special election for the final two years of DeMint’s term and in 2016 for a full six-year term if appointed.
That means campaigning under her own name after years of managing races and staff offices for her husband, who spent six years in Congress and eight years as governor.
“I understand the rigors on public officials,” Sanford said. “I have life experiences that make me suited to handle the challenges.”
Sanford’s name was the most intriguing among the finalists made up mostly of veterans of elected office. The 50-year-old former Wall Street investment banker was the backbone of her husband’s political career, which imploded after the revelation of his affair with an Argentinian woman while in office in 2009.
“She always had a role greater than being the first lady,” said Joel Sawyer, a GOP political consultant who worked in the Sanford administration for more than six years. “Politically, she is a rookie. The jury is out on what kind of candidate she would be. She is a policy-type person. She is a business-type person. I don’t know how much she would enjoy [campaigning].”
‘I will always be grateful’
Haley, a first-term Republican governor, is expected to announce her decision this week.
Her other finalists for DeMint’s seat are: a pair of GOP congressmen, Tim Scott of North Charleston and Trey Gowdy of Spartanburg; Republican former S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster of Columbia; and state environmental agency director Catherine Templeton of Charleston.
“I would consider myself a long shot,” Sanford said.
Haley has declined to discuss potential appointees, though she said last week she considered Sanford a confidante “that I’ve always looked to, to just say, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ and ‘What am I doing right?’ ”
Sanford was an early supporter of Haley, embracing the Lexington Republican’s candidacy when the then-state legislator was running near the bottom of polls in the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary. Even as Sanford struggled with her separation from her husband after his affair, “she remained a steadfast advocate and friend to me,” Haley wrote in her memoir, “Can’t Is Not an Option,” published earlier this year. “I will always be grateful to her.”
That Haley would consider Sanford for such a significant political job is baffling to some.
They think Haley’s logical choice is Scott, a Republican with conservative credentials who would be the first black U.S. senator from the South since Reconstruction. The GOP also is trying to build its minority support after Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney received less than 10 percent of the African-American vote in November.
Critics of Sanford’s inclusion on Haley’s short list say the governor is trying to reward her long-time supporter and help set her up for a run for a different office, perhaps Scott’s seat in Congress if he is appointed to the Senate.
Plus, despite years of helping her husband’s career, voters should not assume everyone who works behind the scenes politically can succeed in front of the podium, pundits said.
“I know a lot of campaign managers and chiefs of staff who are far from being qualified to run for office,” said Bob McAlister, a media consultant who was chief of staff for the late Gov. Carroll Campbell.
‘Intelligent and savvy’
Sanford would succeed in the Senate because she digests complex topics quickly and possesses the skills needed to sway colleagues, said state Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican who served as her then-husband’s first chief of staff.
“She is probably the most intelligent and savvy person about politics I know,” he said. “She will inspire confidence in her colleagues that she knows what she’s talking about.”
Sawyer dismissed criticism that Sanford lacked the experience needed in elected office to succeed in the Senate.
“Jenny brings a strong business background and strong conservative policies,” he said. “She can be very effective in the Senate.”
Haley said last week that experience in elected office would not be a requirement for her Senate appointee.
Sanford said people should not discount her work with her husband in deepening her qualifications for office.
“I would suggest that when you campaign and work so closely with someone for so long you build insight and knowledge on issues, more than the average person,” she said.
Sanford declined to discuss any political ambitions if she is not appointed to the Senate.
“That’s conjecture right now,” she said. “Let’s see what happens [with the Senate].”
If she is appointed, Jenny Sanford could meet a familiar face in the 2014 special election. Mark Sanford has expressed interest in running for DeMint’s seat after the senator moves to head the Heritage Foundation – but that was before his ex-wife was named a finalist for the post. Efforts to reach Mark Sanford were unsuccessful.