Three years ago, Mark Sanford was the “disgraced governor,” the butt of late-night comedians who joked about his torrid affair with an Argentinian journalist and bogus hike on the Appalachian trail.

On Tuesday, voters in the GOP primary for the 1st Congressional District sent him into a runoff, almost certainly against Curtis Bostic, a former member of Charleston County Council who finished a distant second in a crowded field.

In unofficial results, Sanford had 37 percent of the more than 53,000 votes cast. Bostic had 13 percent, narrowly edging state Sen. Larry Grooms with 12 percent. Teddy Turner, the son of media mogul Ted Turner, had about 8 percent. The rest of the field polled 7 percent or less.

Sanford, 52, celebrated his comeback with supporters at a pub in downtown Charleston. “Are you guys ready to change things in Washington, D.C.?” His supporters cheered. “I am incredibly humbled by the outpouring of support we’ve seen tonight, by the trust that has been placed in me and this campaign.”

Bostic, 49, served on Charleston County Council before losing his re-election bid in 2008. He had avoided most GOP forums and concentrated on his base, which includes Christian conservatives. “I attribute our success to the grace of God,” Bostic said late Tuesday. “I believe that the implement that he used was common-sense conservative Americans that were looking for a new direction.” The runoff will be April 2.

Political shuffle

The race began in December, just a month after President Barack Obama’s re-election, a loss that had left many Republicans wondering about their party’s direction, especially among women and Hispanic voters. Amid this hand-wringing, U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, a favorite of the tea party, suddenly stepped down to run a conservative think tank.

This gave Gov. Nikki Haley the chance to move Tim Scott from his job representing District 1 in the House to the U.S. Senate. Scott’s elevation was historic; he was the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction.

It also represented a unique opportunity for people with political ambitions, because the race didn’t have an incumbent. Incumbents typically have a heavy advantage in congressional races. The floodgates opened.

Fifteen men and one women filed. Some were political unknowns. Others, such as Grooms and Chip Limehouse, a state representative, had been in politics for years. But the race’s chemistry changed altogether with Sanford’s entry.

A recent New York magazine article detailed how just before Christmas, Sanford went to Sullivan’s Island to see his ex-wife, Jenny, and asked whether she might run his campaign. She declined. It was the latest in a life of bold moves.

In 2009 he was being talked about as a possible presidential candidate. Then came the downfall — the affair with a former television journalist from Argentina, the leaked emails where he professed his love, his secret trip to Argentina, his lies about hiking on the Appalachian trail, and the $74,000 in ethics fines.

Redemption race

Unlike a traditional congressional campaign, this race would be a sprint and favor candidates with political muscle and good name recognition. Sanford’s campaign quickly populated Lowcountry intersections with plywood signs and the words “Sanford Saves Tax $$” spray-painted in black.

He aired an ad that addressed his downfall. “I’ve experienced how none of us go through life without mistakes,” he said.

Tuesday was a warm day, but only 16 percent of the district’s registered voters trickled into booths across parts of five counties. After the polls closed, early returns showed Sanford with a prominent lead, and attention turned to Bostic, his likely rival in the runoff.

Bostic’s campaign relied heavily on social media and identifying individual voters willing to support him and make calls or send emails on his behalf. “This seat is supposed to be the people’s seat,” he said. “We had close contact with individual voters.” Bostic emphasized that he would continue to run a positive campaign.

The close race for second place will automatically trigger a recount. Grooms could not be reached for comment, but his campaign manager, Hogan Gidley, held out hope that a recount could change the results when they are made official Friday.

“The likelihood isn’t a huge percentage,” he said. “But until the results are official, there’s no reason to be calling any race.”

At 9:30 p.m., Sanford was in Molly Darcy’s pub in downtown Charleston, posing for pictures and thanking supporters for their help. Soon, he was talking like he was in 2009 when he was challenging various plans by the Obama administration, about budget cuts and how he was the first governor to turn back stimulus money.

“We are at a tipping point the likes of which we have never seen as a civilization,” he said. “While many can talk about spending cuts, very few actually do them.”

Prentiss Findlay contributed to this report. Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.