Gov. Mark Sanford’s long and emotional interview with the Associated Press Tuesday appears to have been the final straw for South Carolina’s Republican establishment, much of which is now actively seeking his resignation.
While Sanford seemed to have weathered the storm in the brutal days immediately following his admission of an affair with an Argentine woman, his support has cratered in the wake of the AP interview in which he talked of his “tragic” and “forbidden” love for his “soul mate,” and admitted to having “crossed lines” with a handful of other women.
Fourteen GOP state senators—more than half the Senate Republican caucus—have already called for Sanford’s resignation, joining a list that, as of Wednesday afternoon, included 11 Republican members of the state House, and six of the state’s biggest newspapers.
And three leading South Carolina Republican officeholders, including the state’s two U.S. senators, called Sanford today for what sources close to the lawmakers described as frank conversations about the governor’s ability to carry out his job.
Sens. Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham, as well as Rep. Gresham Barrett, talked to Sanford Wednesday, according to three top South Carolina GOP sources who confirmed the calls, but were hesitant to say whether the lawmakers had directly urged Sanford to resign.
Of the three, Graham is probably closest to Sanford, serving as godchild to the governor’s youngest son. Barrett, who represents an Upstate district, is running for governor next year.
“The conversations are clearly geared toward doing the right thing,” said one top South Carolina Republican.
Another top Republican in the state said of the governor: “His support has collapsed.”
“Two days ago there were very few people calling for his resignation,” said Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), who has not called for Sanford’s resignation. “It came out of that interview.”
Even State Sen. Tom Davis, the close friend Sanford mentioned frequently in his June 24 press conference, stopped short of backing the governor.
“Before any important decision I make comes due diligence, and I owe it to my constituents to perform that due diligence before taking a public position on an issue as important as whether to call for the resignation of a duly-elected statewide official,” Davis said in a statement Wednesday after meeting with Sanford. “I expect to form my official position very shortly.”
Republican Harvey Peeler, the state Senate Majority Leader, said the Sanford “romance novel” is beginning to wear on lawmakers who had previous held back on calling for the governor’s resignation.
“The pressure is mounting and he just keeps talking and changing his story almost hourly,” said Peeler, who in an interview with POLITICO referred to Sanford as “Governor Fabio.”
“I’m shocked that he’s stayed in office this long,” he added.
State GOP chair Karen Floyd, who had been quiet on whether Sanford should resign, released a statement Wednesday acknowledging that “there is clearly a growing view that the time may have come for Governor Sanford to remove himself and his family from the limelight, so that he can devote his efforts full-time to repairing the damage in his personal life.”
Republican state Sen. Larry Grooms, who describes himself as a longtime Sanford friend and ally, told POLITICO he called the governor following the AP interview to tell him that he would be calling on Sanford to resign.
“You’re effectiveness as governor has weakened to such a point…that we won’t be able to pass any of your legislative agenda,” Grooms said he told Sanford over the phone in explaining why he planned to join those calling on the governor to step down.
“Senator, you need to understand something,” Sanford answered, according to Grooms. “This is a story about true love.”
Grooms then told Sanford that he “was destroying the Republican Party, the party of personal responsibility,” to which the governor did not respond.
In hanging up, Grooms told the governor that he would keep him in his prayers.
“He asked me to continue to do that,” Grooms said.
Sanford has shown no signs that he is willing to step down.
“The governor has given a full and truthful account, and he is finished discussing this matter,” said Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer. “He is focused on being governor, on rebuilding his marriage, and on building back the trust of South Carolinians.”
“This thing is real fluid,” said Katon Dawson, an influential former state party chairman who has not called on Sanford to resign. “The facts are that the governor of South Carolina does not have to resign today and does not have to resign tomorrow. Those are the facts, and I deal in facts.”
But many state Republicans have their doubts that Sanford’s focus really is on South Carolina.
“His physical presence may be in South Carolina, but I think his mind is in Argentina,” Grooms said.
One top South Carolina political insider said the unusually personal details of the interview have been “very harmful” to the governor.
“The last thing you need to do is say you’re going to come clean and then not come clean. It’s this extraction of information every day that is causing this erosion of trust,” the insider said. “You would think that at the press conference that he would have vaguely confessed to unfaithfulness and said, ‘the rest is between my wife and I’ and then walked away.”
“It seems like he is coming unhinged,” the longtime South Carolina pol added. “He needs to really go take a hike this time.”
Numerous South Carolina Republicans were so taken aback by the governor’s remarks Tuesday that they speculated about Sanford’s mental health after watching his life and political career unravel in short order.
“I think it’s obvious that he needs some help,” said GOP state Sen. Larry Martin. “He needs to quit talking to reporters and go get some professional help.”
Martin said the interview may have been “geared to preempting some other information that might come out,” but turned into a disaster for Sanford.
“I think he was trying to do some damage control and it just got out of hand,” he said. “I can’t imagine his staff would have ever agreed to him doing that if they didn’t think there was some upside to it.”
Martin added: “I’m just sad for him.”
Peeler also said the interview left him personally concerned about the governor.
“Those were the ramblings of a troubled man,” he said. “I’m not a lawyer. I’m not a doctor. But I know when I see it, that man needs help.”
Asked about the press conference, Inglis said Sanford’s “close aides don’t need all those details and the state certainly doesn’t need all those details,” adding that any media handlers would “be telling him ‘you don’t need to tell them all that.’”
The GOP congressman said he was not particularly disturbed by Sanford’s comments to the Associated Press because “Mark tries to not be affected by being governor. So it’s his usual non-affected behavior that is getting him in this case.
Inglis said he believes that because of the scandal, Sanford could have his best eighteen months as governor if he chose to stay in office.
Sanford’s tenure could now be more effective, the congressman said, because of “the humility that can come out of this humiliation.”
But after watching the avalanche of statements on Wednesday calling for the governor’s resignation, GOP state Rep. Lanny Littlejohn estimated that Sanford will likely only be able to hang on to his seat for another week, an outcome he would not have believed only a few days ago.
“I can’t believe all this is happening. It’s like a dream. It’s unreal,” he said. “It’s just gotta be the shock of the year that things are playing out the way they are.