Rainier Ehrhardt / AP
Mark Sanford arrives at a victory rally Tuesday, May 7, in Mount Pleasant, S.C., near Charleston.
Once the disgraced and tearful figure at the epicenter of an embarrassing scandal, former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford will return to public life as a U.S. congressman.
The Associated Press has projected Sanford to be the winner of Tuesday's special election in South Carolina's 1st Congressional District race.
Former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford has won the special election to replace Republican Tim Scott, who is now a senator. NBC's Brian Williams reports.
Sanford, a Republican, defeated Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch after a race that captivated national media attention despite the district's solidly Republican record. The win caps an unlikely ascent to political redemption after Sanford's extramarital affair and subsequent divorce made him fodder for national headlines and late-night comedy sketches.
"The people have spoken, and I respect their decision," Colbert Busch said in brief remarks Tuesday night.
Once described as a possible presidential contender, Sanford left the Governor's Mansion in 2011 humiliated by revelations of his affair with an Argentine woman — now his fiancée.
His campaign to retake the U.S. House seat he held in the 1990s began with a plea for forgiveness during the GOP primary but ended mainly with red-meat critiques of the federal deficit, big government and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
"I have a question for y'all: How many of you want to change Washington, D.C.?" Sanford said to cheers from supporters, declaring that voters had sent "a message to Washington, D.C., and a messenger to Washington, D.C., on the importance of changing things in that fair city."
Mark Sanford thanks his opponent, supporters and lastly God in an acceptance speech for a South Carolina congressional seat where he references his well-publicized personal battles
Sanford's personal life was in the campaign's spotlight in April, when court documents accusing him of trespassing at his ex-wife's home were made public. He says he entered the house to watch the second half of the Super Bowl with his 14-year-old son, chalking the charges up to a family dispute.
Colbert Busch, a college administrator, benefited from a publicity boost from brother and political comedian Stephen Colbert but proved unable to win in a district that hasn't voted for a Democrat for more than three decades.
Noting that "I had deficiencies that were well chronicled as a candidate," Sanford joked: "Some guy came up to me the other day and said, 'You look a lot like Lazarus.'"
Elizabeth Colbert Busch says she respects the decision of the voters and thanks her supporters in her concession speech.
Sanford will now hold the House seat left vacant when Republican Tim Scott, an African American conservative who is a favorite with Tea Party activists, was appointed to replace departing Sen. Jim DeMint in the U.S. Senate.
M. Alex Johnson and Lauren Selsky of NBC News contributed to this report.
This story was originally published on Tue May 7, 2013 10:10 PM EDT