Former Gov. Mark Sanford completed the trail to political redemption Tuesday with a win over Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch to reclaim his old seat in Congress.

Sanford timeline

Click here for highlights of Mark Sanford’s rise and fall, and rise back into South Carolina politics.

Sanford defeated Colbert Busch 54 percent to 45 percent, according to full unofficial results. Turnout was heavier than expected, with about 32 percent of the district’s 455,702 registered voters casting ballots.

Sanford, who has never lost an election, returns to the 1st District seat he held for three terms from 1995-2001. It’s a remarkable comeback for a man many pundits had written off after his highly publicized affair with an Argentine mistress made him the source of national ridicule in 2009.

Democrats jumped at the chance to pick up a traditionally safe GOP seat, putting up more than $1 million to back Colbert Busch, a businesswoman and sister of comedian Stephen Colbert.

In the end, the Republican with the plywood signs and plain-talking style carried the day with voters, who were willing to overlook Sanford’s baggage as well as fresh allegations of trespassing from his ex-wife, Jenny.

Sanford supporters gathered at the Liberty Tap Room in Mount Pleasant, and Sanford needed to stand on a kitchen pan so he could be seen in the crowded room.

He thanked his staff, supporters and Colbert Busch for a spirited race. He said the race came down to a difference of ideas over how to fix the nation’s financial woes.

“I have a question for you all,” he said as the crowd roared. “How many of you want to change Washington, D.C.?”

Sanford brought up the ethical lapses that foes hammered him on during the campaign, acknowledging his past even as fiancee Maria Belen Chapur, the Argentine woman he had gone to see as governor, stood a few feet behind him.

“I had deficiencies that were well-chronicled as a candidate,” he said, but then went on to talk about grace and the “angels” who had helped him along the way.

Sanford said he learned a lot about grace over the course of the campaign, and that “I get it in a way I never have before.”

“I’m going to try to be the best congressman that I can be,” he said.

Colbert Busch took the stage at the Charleston Renaissance Hotel to concede, as about two dozen family members stood by her.

“We put up a heck of a fight, didn’t we?” she said. “The people have spoken, and I respect their decision.”

When the crowd murmured, she said, “No, I respect their decision. This is the beauty of our country. I can assure you I will continue to fight for all of you.”

Some of her supporters echoed a remark that outgoing S.C. Democratic Chairman Dick Harpootlian made Friday, saying if Colbert Busch doesn’t win, then the district is unwinnable for Democrats.

Sanford will serve out the final year and a half of the term vacated by Tim Scott, who was appointed to the U.S. Senate.

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden released a statement congratulating Sanford, saying the “results demonstrate just how devastating the policies of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi are for House Democrats in 2014.

“Democrats spent more than $1 million trying to elect a candidate who was backed by the Democrat machine, but at the end of the day, running on the Obama-Pelosi ticket was just too toxic for Elizabeth Colbert Busch,” he said.

The NRCC pulled its support from Sanford’s campaign last month following the trespassing allegations, a move that cost him symbolically and financially.

Tea Party Express, the nation’s largest tea party political action committee, endorsed Sanford Saturday and congratulated him on his victory.

“Today, a grassroots, issue-based campaign upset the national Democratic campaign machine,” Tea Party Express Chairwoman Amy Kremer said. “Voters saw past the personal attacks and elected a tea party candidate who is willing to stand up for fiscal responsibility and limited government.”

The candidates ran very different races. Sanford talked up national issues and wanted more debates against Colbert Busch. She agreed to only one debate, and her more limited time in the public eye seemed designed in part to keep the focus on him.

Still, many Republicans said they were willing to forgive. “I think he’s paid for his mistakes,” said James Island voter Christine Baldree, 26.

Rhonda Capps, a 44-year-old Mount Pleasant resident, voted for Sanford at Seacoast Church. Capps said she had been put off by Colbert Busch’s expensive, negative campaign, which she described as “tacky.”

The hotly contested race kept Lowcountry TV sets humming, as both candidates bought several ads for regular rotation.

Colbert Busch raised more than $1.1 million and was helped with more than $600,000 in separate ad buys, mostly attacking Sanford, from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the House Majority PAC and VoteVets.

Sanford raised more than $750,000 and also out-advertised Colbert Busch on her brother’s popular Comedy Central show.

Sanford found eager donors, despite his personal problems, such as an April 16 revelation that his ex-wife had filed a trespassing complaint against him in Family Court. Sanford claimed he was only trying to watch the Super Bowl with his son.

He faces a court appearance Thursday in Charleston County Family Court to answer the allegation. A day later, election officials are expected to make his win official.

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