By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Fresh off a redemptive win in South Carolina's special election, former Governor Mark Sanford's return to Congress will make him a prominent wild card in an already fractious Republican caucus.
Sanford, whose political career was short-circuited in 2009 by an extramarital affair that marred his last 18 months as governor, earned a political rebirth along with a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday by defeating Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch.
Sanford will arrive in Washington owing little to the Republican Party's leadership, which withheld its support as he battled Colbert Busch in their heavily Republican district. Once he returns to the House seat he held from 1995 to 2001, his independence and staunch fiscal conservatism could give him clout as Congress enters another round of divisive battles over the federal budget.
"There is obviously the potential for Sanford to be a real thorn in (the House Republican) leadership's side," Republican strategist Ford O'Connell said. "He's a free agent; he can do whatever he wants."
The House Republican campaign committee did not give any financial support to his bid for a political comeback, but Sanford said on Wednesday he was willing to work with party leaders.
"I would say yesterday is yesterday and today is today, and I look forward to working with them," Sanford said on CBS's "This Morning" show.
Sanford's victory completed his comeback from a scandal that began when he disappeared for five days in June 2009 to secretly visit his mistress in Argentina. He had told his staff that he would be hiking along the Appalachian Trail.
In launching his comeback, Sanford - now divorced from Jenny Sanford and engaged to Maria Belen Chapur, the Argentinian woman with whom he had the affair - survived a 16-way Republican primary and a runoff in April. He then topped Colbert Busch in the race to succeed Republican Tim Scott, who was appointed to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated when Jim DeMint retired.
The House Republican campaign committee dropped its financial support of Sanford last month after reports that his ex-wife had accused him of trespassing on her property, in violation of their divorce agreement. Sanford said he was in the house to watch the Super Bowl with his youngest son.
Sanford reached a family court agreement on the complaint on Wednesday, admitting he trespassed on her property and paying her legal fees but avoiding a contempt sentence. Sanford had been due in court on Thursday on the allegation.
Sanford attributed his election win to his record of fiscal conservatism. He said on Wednesday he will have "plenty of friends" in Washington and would work hard with members of both parties to cut the budget.
"At the end of the day, I think people care about how politics impacts their lives," he said on NBC's "Today" show. "I've got a rather proven record in trying to do something on that front, particularly as it relates to financial issues."
House Speaker John Boehner and other Republican leaders have had difficulty keeping conservative members in line during the budget debates. Sanford pushed hard to cut spending during his first stint in Congress, before the Tea Party movement made it a top priority for Republicans, and he can be expected to make his voice heard during the upcoming budget battles.
"He's been a little bit of a rebel. He's been more conservative than about 90 percent of Republicans based on his past voting record," said Gibbs Knotts, political science chairman at College of Charleston.
He also is likely to be around a while. The heavy Republican tilt of the coastal district, which Mitt Romney won by 18 percentage points last year in the presidential election, makes it unlikely that Democrats will be able to mount a viable challenge to Sanford anytime soon.
Both parties tried to make the best of Sanford's win, however. Republicans portrayed it as a sign of voter dissatisfaction with the agenda of national Democrats and President Barack Obama. Democrats said his election would undermine Republican efforts to appeal to women voters.
But analysts warned that, despite all the national attention to the race, the result probably revealed little about the broader mood of voters in the off-year between the 2012 presidential election and the 2014 congressional elections.
Sanford linked Colbert Busch to Washington liberals like House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, appearing at one point in a mock debate with a cardboard cutout of the liberal Pelosi.
"It was a triumph of demographics and ideology for Sanford. He took positions that were more in line with the district's Republican voters," Knotts said.
The Democratic House campaign committee and Democratic-leaning outside groups poured nearly $1 million into the race against Sanford. Despite the loss, they said Sanford's election made a mockery of Republican efforts to appeal to women.
"House Republicans' outreach to women voters now has Mark Sanford as the face," said Representative Steve Israel of New York, Democratic House campaign committee chairman. "Republicans now have to defend him and stand with him until election day."
National Republicans claimed Sanford's win was a warning sign for Democrats looking toward the 2014 elections.
"At the end of the day, running on the Obama-Pelosi ticket was just too toxic for Elizabeth Colbert Busch," said Representative Greg Walden of Oregon, Republican House campaign committee chairman.
(Additional reporting by Harriet McLeod in South Carolina, Vicki Allen in Washington; Editing by David Lindsey and Cynthia Osterman)