If Mark Sanford was running for governor of South Carolina this year against Henry McMaster, Gresham Barrett, and Andre Bauer, I would be voting for Sanford despite his adultery scandal.

As of this writing, Republican gubernatorial frontrunner Nikki Haley has also been accused of adultery, something she has denied. But true or untrue, I will be voting for Haley in the Republican governor’s primary on June 8 — and for the same reason I would have supported Sanford.

Before Sanford made headlines about “hiking the Appalachian trail” with his Argentinean “soulmate,” he created a national controversy by refusing federal stimulus dollars, making a name for himself as one of the few Republicans taking a real stance in the fight to control government spending and debt. A significant portion of that stimulus would have gone to aid South Carolina’s unemployed, leading most state politicians to call Sanford “heartless,” including many high-ranking Republicans.

Sanford warned that accepting the stimulus would only prolong what was obviously a broken Employment Securities Commission and the debt accrued would inevitably make things worse in the long term for both state government and the unemployed.

In December, The Post and Courier reported: “The [unemployment] agency has borrowed more than $700 million from the federal government since October 2008 to pay out jobless benefits to the unemployed in South Carolina, which has one of the nation’s highest jobless rates — 12.6 percent in December … The legislature must figure out how to repay the federal debt and make the account solvent in the future.”

Sanford’s position exemplified the sort of tough, hard-line conservative stance Republicans must take if we are to ever set our out-of-control government on a more fiscally sound course. On the stimulus package, the bankruptcy of our unemployment system, and many other things, Sanford was right. However, most of this state’s Republican politicians are still wrong.

In January, I attended the first Republican gubernatorial debate in Charleston. When Henry McMaster, Andre Bauer, and Gresham Barrett were asked whether, as governor, they would have accepted the federal stimulus money Sanford had so firmly and famously rejected, each agreed they would have. Only Haley said she wouldn’t. Not only did I find it impossible to even consider supporting the three men on that stage, but I admired Haley for being unafraid to pick up where Sanford left off.

When asked about education, Haley rightly notes that we already spend $60,000 per student, which means a lack of funding is not the cause of our failing schools; the problem is systematic. When pressed on whether our state should have forked out the big bucks to woo Boeing, and if she considered that “wasteful spending,” Haley smartly agreed that effort was worth it, but that South Carolina should have a more consistent pro-business environment without having to depend on a major corporation to swoop in every few years. Amen.

Before the first gubernatorial debate, some friends and acquaintances who were Sanford supporters or who had worked for Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign had introduced me to Haley. It is worth noting that when Haley first entered the Republican governor’s race, she was immediately considered a long shot for two reasons: One, she was running against long-established GOP heavyweights with more funds and fame, and, two, Haley was despised by virtually every politician in Columbia — just like Sanford.

Like Capitol Hill, Columbia is full of supposedly “conservative” Republicans who talk a good game but for decades have forfeited any such principles in favor of more bureaucracy, debt, and government growth. That’s exactly what I see in conventional Republicans McMaster (the personification of the good ole’ boy system), Bauer (who is ridiculously transparent with his cheap shots against welfare recipients), and Barrett (who inexplicably still defends his House vote for TARP). This sort of staid, old Republicanism will no longer do. Even after Sanford ran off with an Argentinean woman, becoming a disgrace to his family and this state, he has still been a better — and certainly more conservative — governor than anything McMaster, Bauer, or Barrett promise to be.

Blogger Will Folks now claims to have had an “inappropriate relationship” with Haley, and even if this were true, it doesn’t change the fact that she’s the best candidate for governor. I don’t care who any of these people are screwing, so long as they’re not screwing me, my neighbors, and future generations.

Conservatism must mean more than rhetoric, and Republicans must finally offer a substantive alternative to an unsustainable status quo. If the race included just McMaster, Bauer, and Barrett, I would not be voting in the governor’s race this year because I wouldn’t see the point. But on June 8, I will be voting for Nikki Haley.

Catch Southern Avenger commentaries every Tuesday and Friday at 7:50 a.m. on the “Morning Buzz with Richard Todd” on 1250 AM WTMA.