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Could Sanford split the GOP?

South Carolina Republican Gov. Mark Sanford’s affair with an Argentinian woman hurt many different groups — it hurt himself, it hurt his family, it hurt his South Carolina constituents and it hurt his party’s chances at staging a national resurgence in 2012 or beyond.

Sanford’s admission of guilt comes less than a month after Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign also admitted to having an affair. However, Sanford’s fall from grace is considerably higher than Ensign’s — the South Carolina governor was considered a legitimate candidate to be the GOP nominee for president in 2012.

He was the mantle-holder for the party’s fight against President Barack Obama’s big-government stimulus package, drawing headlines as the first governor to state publicly that he would reject the federal funds.

Unfortunately for Sanford, he was also one of President Bill Clinton’s harshest critics, making his hypocrisy even more despicable.

In 1998, Sanford was a U.S. congressman, and told The Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier, “(This is) very damaging stuff … I think it would be much better for the country and for (Clinton) personally (to resign).”

Then-congressman Ensign also called for Clinton to step down in 1998, telling The Las Vegas Review-Journal, “The honorable thing for him to do is to resign and not put the country through this.”

To be fair, Ensign and Sanford were also being critical of Clinton’s perjury to a grand jury. However, it is clear to anyone that the Republican Party has defined itself of the party of “family values” and moral turpitude. As more and more of the Republican’s voting base grows older and passes away, the party must attract younger voters in order to survive. This younger generation is typically more socially liberal, and scandals like Sanford’s will certainly not help attract that new voting blood.

Perhaps it is unfair for voters to subject Republican politicians to such a high moral code. After all, roughly half of all marriages end in divorce and a large number of those separations are due to infidelity.

But when one of your national party platforms is “family values,” then any scandal like Sanford’s affair is going to put a chink in that armor.

At some point, the Republican Party may have to make a gamble — risk alienating social conservatives by toning down the “family values” rhetoric, or continue to lose voters who are turned off by the rampant moral hypocrisy present in the GOP today.

Sanford’s impropriety may not only result in a split in his marriage, it may also split the entire Republican Party.