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Sanford, Colbert sister advance in South Carolina special primary

Bruce Smith / AP

Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford speaks with reporters on Tuesday, March 19, 2013, at a polling place in Charleston, S.C.

A disgraced ex-governor and the sister of a popular comedian came out victorious on Tuesday in South Carolina's special congressional primary, possibly setting the stage for an uncommonly tight race for what is normally a Republican safe seat.

Republicans in South Carolina's 1st congressional district showed forgiveness by supporting Mark Sanford after a campaign focused as much on the former governor's personal transgressions as his record. Sanford came out on top of the crowded 16-candidate Republican primary, according to the Associated Press.

Former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford talks about attempting to revive his political career Tuesday at a South Carolina congressional primary vote.

Sanford, who gained more than 35 percent of the vote, will face a runoff election on April 2 against the second place finisher. The race for the Republican runner-up was much closer and votes were still being tallied late into the night.

Also victorious on Tuesday was Elizabeth Colbert Busch — the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert — who easily won the Democratic primary and will face off against the winner of the Republican run-off election in May.

The seat opened in December when then-Rep. Tim Scott was appointed to fill the Senate seat vacated by Jim DeMint.

Bruce Smith / AP

Elizabeth Colbert Bush, the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert, shares a laugh with reporters after voting in Mount Pleasant, S.C., on Tuesday, March 19, 2013.

Sanford's bizarre disappearance from the governor's mansion in 2009 became fodder for comedians and political onlookers alike after it was revealed he lied about hiking in the Appalachian Trail in order to visit his mistress in Argentina. He served out his term, but faced ethics fines, a divorce from his wife of 21 years, and what many thought was the end of a promising political career.

He has spent the years since asking for forgiveness and acknowledging his mistakes, but he attempted to keep the focus of his campaign on his record as a conservative spender in as a governor and in Congress. 

South Carolina congressional candidate Elizabeth Colbert Busch casts her vote Tuesday in the state's primary.

“If we live long enough, we’re going to fail at something and I absolutely failed in my personal life and in my marriage, but one place I didn’t ever fail was with the taxpayers,” he said on the Today show last month.

Still, Republican rivals competing in the primary criticized Sanford for using his candidacy as much as a PR tour as a bid for Congress.

“His personal tour of redemption now is a disservice to the people of the Lowcountry who are looking for the next leader to represent them in Congress,” Mike Biundo, an adviser to rival candidate Andy Patrick, said in a statement.

Throughout the campaign the well-funded Sanford was seen as the GOP front runner to reach the runoff.  According to the non-profit Sunlight foundation, the former governor raised more than $300,000 with contributions from well-known Republican financiers David Koch and Foster Friess, the billionaire who largely bankrolled Rick Santorum's presidential campaign. 

Sanford also enjoys a name recognition level much higher than his rivals, fueled both by his tumultuous tenure as governor and the fact he served as the representative from South Carolina's 1st district from 1995 to 2001.

Sanford's front-runner status made the primary largely a race for second place, where Teddy Turner, son of media-mogul Ted Turner,  locked in a television ad war with Chip Limehouse. Turner painted Limehouse, a member of South Carolina's house of representatives, as a career politician. Limehouse accuses Turner of duping business investors out of millions of dollars.

Rivaling Sanford's funding on the Democratic side is Colbert Busch, whose famous brother has campaigned for her and talked about her on his satirical Comedy Central talk show.

Colbert Busch supporters argue their candidate can make inroads amongst those still unforgiving of Sanford's actions.

"I want to say to the voters of the 1st Congressional District of South Carolina, Democrats, Independents and Republicans, I have been listening and I hear you. I understand your frustrations and your aspirations. I will never stop listening to you-and I am ready to be your voice in Washington," Colbert Busch said in a statement released after her win.