Sanford’s Political Career Fades in the Age of Trump
Posted June 13, 2018 1:46 a.m. EDT
MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. — Mark Sanford smiled. He shook hands, posed for photographs and drove himself around his district on Election Day. He ordered a chocolate milkshake.
But all day, after all these years as a governor and a congressman, he seemed to know what might be coming: his first concession speech. So it came to be in a crowded restaurant here Tuesday night, hours after he had been openly mocked by President Donald Trump then knocked aside by a rival who vowed a close alliance with the White House. Sanford, a politician first sent to Washington as an insurgent of one era, was toppled in a different moment by a different kind of renegade.
“We are to cower before the people who elected us, and I get their verdict tonight,” Sanford said, reading from scribbled notes on a legal pad, as it became clear he would lose his House race against Katie Arrington in South Carolina’s Republican primary.
Even for a politician accustomed to humiliations — his marital infidelity and ill-fated, infamous trip to the Appalachian Trail, which was actually Argentina, still proved ripe for jabs this campaign — Sanford’s political unraveling in South Carolina was a striking comedown that somehow seemed both impossible and inescapable.
“There’s a different feel to this race, based on something that I’ve never experienced before, which is at times being hit not on ideas that I’ve espoused or held, but based on allegiance,” Sanford said earlier in the day as he campaigned. “I’ve never experienced that before.”
“With some people,” he added, “the allegiance to ideas is secondary to their belief in the importance of their allegiance to a person.”
When a reporter asked him whether he was optimistic about his chances, he replied, “I think confident is too strong a word.”
And that was before Trump’s late-afternoon tweet, posted from Air Force One less than three hours before the polls were to close here. Trump complained that Sanford was “nothing but trouble” and “very unhelpful” in advancing his administration’s agenda. He endorsed Arrington but also included a pointed dig at Sanford’s personal life: “He is better off in Argentina,” the president wrote.
It is not clear how many voters saw the president’s 11th-hour endorsement and how many of them it swayed. But Trump’s tweet in support of Arrington’s bid in the 1st Congressional District was perhaps the final death knell in a two-act political career that toggled between spectacles and subtle moments.
Sanford, after all, was a governor who once brought squealing pigs into the South Carolina State House to make a point about pork-barrel spending. His penchant for sleeping in his congressional office still resonated with voters who met him Tuesday over plates of pork and, surprisingly enough, an entree salad at a barbecue restaurant. Lawmakers thought about impeaching him when he was governor, and when he staged a political comeback in 2013, he ran for the House against comedian Stephen Colbert’s sister.
But he was also known, if not equally so, for private conversations with constituents, his cellphone number essentially an open secret in South Carolina. People called him Mark.
Then on Tuesday, Sanford confronted a race largely defined by his resistance, extravagant by the standards of congressional Republicans, to Trump: critiques of the president’s behavior, skepticism of the administration’s push for tariffs and previous calls for the president to release his tax returns.
The approach plainly irritated both Trump and many voters in the district, which runs along much of South Carolina’s coast.
Although the district includes Charleston, the state’s largest city, it also takes in more rural areas that strongly favor Trump, who carried it by 14 points in 2016 and has sometimes become a singular litmus test in Republican primaries since then.
“This is certainly, for lack of a better term, a schizophrenic district,” Sanford said Tuesday as he drove his well-worn Chevrolet Suburban to a deli in Summerville.
“The biggest county is Charleston County — it’s a blue county! — so when I do a town-hall meeting, you do 1,000 or 500 people screaming at you saying Trump needs to be impeached,” he continued. “Meanwhile, you find yourself in a Republican primary where you’re not ‘Trump enough.’ It’s like you can’t win these days, in terms of trying to talk about ideas.”
Sanford stuck with an old-school strategy, content with what he noted proudly had worked before and the time before that and the time before that, but Arrington summoned a political strength that by turns mesmerized and infuriated his voters and supporters.
She swung at Sanford with little apparent reservation or restraint, filling her advertisements and debates with barbs about the congressman’s personal and political integrity.
“You can’t have a seat at the table in the Oval Office, because you have offended the president numerous times,” Arrington told Sanford during a debate on a talk-radio station on Monday. “You should have the wherewithal not to go on CNN to bash our president. Instead, work with the president, work with leadership to get done what we want done here.”
Before the primary, Arrington, who has worked in defense contracting, not-so-subtly invoked the marital infidelity that nearly drove Sanford from the governor’s wing of offices in Columbia, the state capital, and cost him his marriage to the woman who helped forge his rise in politics.
“Mark Sanford and the career politicians cheated on us,” she said in one commercial. Referring to the snicker-inducing false alibi of an Appalachian Trail outing that he once offered for an absence from the capital, she said, “Bless his heart, but it’s time for Mark Sanford to take a hike — for real this time.” Trump ultimately opted for a similar line of attack. His endorsement of Arrington, though, was late arriving. Trump had already backed, and raised money for, Gov. Henry McMaster, who was forced into a runoff Tuesday.
“It’s an example of the president not wanting to put any of his own personal political capital on the line because the race is close — but wanting to be able to take credit for it should it go Katie Arrington’s way,” said Rob Godfrey, who was a top aide to Nikki Haley, now Trump’s envoy to the United Nations, when she was governor of South Carolina. “It’s another profile in Trump courage.”
By the time Trump had set Sanford’s supporters seething anew, the congressman had sensed that he was in political jeopardy.
Sanford partly shed his reputation as a campaign skinflint, pouring close to $400,000 into advertisements for the primary race, including one in which he said, “Overwhelmingly, I’ve voted with the president.” And then on Tuesday, he fell back on what he thought he needed to do: drive, without aides in tow, from one restaurant to another to chat up customers and workers.
Jim ‘N Nick’s. Groucho’s. Ye Old Fashioned Ice Cream & Sandwich Cafe.
Most everyone recognized him. On Tuesday night, it became clear that was not enough.