Mark Sanford running scared in Trump-fueled primary
MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. — GOP Rep. Mark Sanford has spent the past three years torching President Donald Trump, firmly establishing himself as a staunch critic of the commander-in-chief who, unlike so many others in his party, never came around.
Now he’s suddenly at risk of losing his job over it.
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The once seemingly safe former South Carolina governor, who’s never lost a bid for political office, is sweating in the final days of his primary race against state Rep. Katie Arrington, a political newcomer who’s cast Sanford as a disloyal Never-Trumper.
Over the past several weeks, Sanford has launched an 11th-hour TV advertising blitz going directly after Arrington, a sure indication that he’s under duress. He’s barnstorming his Lowcountry district. And on Sunday, he released a full-page letter to a local newspaper in which he pleaded with voters to “look at the list of things I have gotten done on your behalf” and asked them to call him on his personal cell phone if they had any questions.
Sanford is one of a string of Republican lawmakers under mounting pressure over their allegiance to the president. Alabama Rep. Martha Roby, who vowed not to vote for then-candidate Trump after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape in which he bragged about sexually assaulting women, has been forced into a primary runoff. On Tuesday, Virginia Rep. Scott Taylor is facing a long-shot challenge from a former local official who has highlighted critical comments the congressman made about the president.
During an interview at an outdoor bar on the Mount Pleasant waterfront Saturday evening, Sanford expressed concern that a loss in his race would have a chilling effect on those Republicans willing to speak out against the administration.
“I think it’s entirely appropriate to say ‘I agree’ when I agree and ‘I disagree’ when I disagree. That’s the American way. That’s what our entire political system is based on, is the fact that we can have dissent,” Sanford said. “And it can be painful — going along to get along is the way of Washington. But keeping that as a part of our political tradition, I think, is vital.”
Most people here have a hard time seeing Sanford, a household name in South Carolina who was first elected to political office in 1994, losing on Tuesday. While the primary could end up closer than what the 58-year-old congressman is accustomed to, he is widely expected to pull it out.
Still, the last-minute $380,000 barrage of commercials from Sanford — a notoriously frugal figure who hasn’t spent money on TV advertising in five years — has been striking.
“It’s easier to get the truth out of the White House than to get lunch money out of Mark Sanford, so I’d say that any race in which a challenger convinces him to spend real money is a serious one,” said Rob Godfrey, a former top adviser to ex-South Carolina GOP Gov. Nikki Haley.
The congressman isn’t sounding so sure of his prospects. When a restaurant-goer stopped him Saturday evening to ask about what polling showed, Sanford hesitated.
“They say different things,” he responded.
Sanford, long known for wearing his emotions openly and speaking his mind, has been one of the most high-profile Republican Trump critics in Congress. He’s called the president’s tariffs on steel and aluminum “an experiment with stupidity.” He’s called Trump’s disparaging remarks about Haiti and African nations “something stupid.” He’s said that Trump has done some “weird stuff” in office.
During the 2016 campaign, Sanford said Trump should “just shut up” and stop focusing so much on his critics. He’s said that the president was “partially” to blame for the toxic rhetoric that led to the shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.). He’s said that “trading slights seems essential” to Trump’s personality, and he gave an extensive interview to POLITICO Magazine in which he said the president had “fanned the flames of intolerance.”
Sanford insists that his discord with the president isn’t anything personal, but rather rooted in deeply held beliefs. As an example, he points to his dispute with the administration over its proposal to open the South Carolina coastline to drilling. After hearing complaints from constituents, he said he had little choice but to raise concerns with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, to whom he’d grown close while they served together in Congress — and who was almost his roommate.
“I’m not looking for disagreement with the administration,” Sanford said. “But it comes to, you cannot walk away from it if you’re really listening to the people I spend so much time with here at home.”
Yet he’s given an opening to Arrington, who’s betting that voters in the conservative district, which stretches from the Georgia border to north of Charleston, want a congressperson who’s in lockstep with the president. The 47-year-old state representative has aired a spree of TV commercials portraying Sanford as an avowed Trump opponent, including one that shows the congressman savaging the president in a series of spliced-up cable news interviews.
Much of her bid has been oriented around the president. She has tapped Mike Biundo, who served as national senior adviser on Trump’s 2016 campaign, as a top strategist.
In a Sunday afternoon interview following an event at the welcome center for the U.S.S. Yorktown battleship, Arrington said voters in the district had grown tired of Sanford’s opposition to the president.