As tensions between the conservative base and the Republican establishment have intensified over the years, various conservatives have speculated how to “win by losing,” that is, to willingly take short-term Republican defeats in the hopes they would force the party to learn from failure, resulting in deeper long-term victories.

This is usually a risky proposition, partly because of the lasting damage Democrats in power can do and partly because much of the GOP is too dense to take the right lessons from failure anyway, but this month, the special election for South Carolina’s 1st District House seat provided an ideal opportunity for Republicans to win far more than they’d sacrifice. And they blew it.

Disgraced former governor Mark Sanford won a decisive victory against Democrat challenger Elizabeth Colbert Busch, but while he will probably be a fairly reliable conservative vote, the Democrats’ propaganda efforts stand to gain much more.

“Extramarital affair” only begins to describe the Sanford spectacle. He mysteriously ditched the governorship for a week, made up a cover story about hiking, turned out to be rendezvousing with a mistress in Argentina, and then, in awkwardly-detailed press statements and interviews, he seemed to cast himself as the lead in a romance novel, announcing he could die knowing he’d found his “soul mate,” who happened to be someone other than his wife.

Since then, he’s been accused by his ex-wife of repeatedly trespassing at her home, asked her to be his House campaign’s pro-bono manager, compared himself to Lazarus and his political aspirations to the Alamo, gotten engaged to his mistress, and brought her onstage on the eve of his primary win—without consulting his sons in attendance, who hadn’t even met her before and were reportedly upset by the incident.

This is the stuff liberal spinsters’ dreams are made of. The country had largely forgotten about Mark Sanford after his resignation, but now that he’s back in office and an active participant in national politics, liberals will have at least two years ahead of themselves in which they can use Sanford against the rest of the GOP, in much they same way they tried to make every Republican out to be Todd Akin during the presidential campaign. He’ll be a distraction at best, a cudgel against the alleged emptiness and hypocrisy of family values at worst. And if you think Sanford is done saying and doing embarrassing things, you’re in for a rude awakening.

In a May 8th piece for FoxNews.com, RedState.com editor and ardent Sanford apologist Erick Erickson unwittingly highlighted just how much damage Sanford could do. “Mark Sanford is no fan of Republican leaders in Congress. They yanked their money from his race, choosing to let him fend for himself,” Erickson said, suggesting Sanford would be itching to for payback against the establishment. “This should be fun to watch.” Seriously? For anybody genuinely interested in taking the GOP back from its weak-kneed leaders, Sanford is just about the last person in the country you’d want publicly associated with that effort. There’s a reason that, in October 2009, it was South Carolina Democrats who scuttled a Republican motion to begin impeachment proceedings against him.

In exchange for all that risk, Republicans get…one vote in a chamber Republicans already control and are likely to keep, for a seat Republicans almost certainly would have reclaimed in the next election anyway. No major legislation’s fate is going to hinge on Sanford’s presence in the House. Oh, and now that Sanford’s got incumbency, getting a decent Republican into his seat will be harder than simply defeating Colbert Busch with someone else next time around.

It’s clear that Republicans should have been far more proactive in searching for alternative candidates, but even after primary voters insisted on this lemon, lemonade still could have been made. The National Republican Congressional Committee’s decision not to spend money on his behalf was a good first step, but they didn’t do anything beyond that.

Imagine if the NRCC and the RNC had very publicly declared their lack of confidence in Sanford, desire to have nothing to do with him, and unwillingness to inflict on the American people such an unreliable steward of their trust. A major party openly opposing one of their own in the name of integrity and competence would run so contrary to what people expect from politics that it could have dramatically shaken up cynical voters’ perception of the GOP, and contrasted powerfully against the party whose nominating convention lionized serial adulterer Bill Clinton and killer Ted Kennedy, and in which Anthony Weiner might yet make a comeback.

That, however, would require actual creative thinking, a willingness to take risks, and an ability to think outside the team-player mentality…all of which is sorely lacking in Washington these days.