Sanford at risk in primary shadowed by Trump

Sanford at risk in primary shadowed by Trump
© Greg Nash

South Carolina Rep. Mark SanfordMarshall (Mark) Clement SanfordMulvaney: Trump regularly asks why Roy Moore lost Dems vow to grab Trump tax returns upon taking majority Insurgency shakes up Democratic establishment MORE (R) is once again running for his political life, this time against a pro-Trump challenger that could sink him in his Tuesday primary.

Sanford is one of the few Republican lawmakers who has been willing to openly criticize the president. But his opponent, state Rep. Katie Arrington, is using that criticism to try to turn the GOP primary electorate against the longtime politician.

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The former governor is no stranger to tough political terrain — many thought his career might be over after he was caught having an affair with a mistress in Argentina despite initially claiming he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. But he’s still seen as the favorite on Tuesday, having never lost an election even despite the scandal.

But with the GOP primary electorate hardening around its support for President TrumpDonald John TrumpLondon terror suspect’s children told authorities he complained about Trump: inquiry The Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh Trump to nominate retiring lawmaker as head of trade agency MORE, voters will decide once again whether they want to keep Sanford around.

“It’s one of the drivers, one of the big factors here. Sanford has never lost an election but obviously he’s always someone who has ... shown some vulnerability,” said Gibbs Knotts, the chairman of the College of Charleston’s political science department.

Now, his criticism of Trump “does expose him from the right,” Knotts said.

Sanford is a mainstay in the state, having served a total of six terms in Congress with an eight-year stint as governor in between. Knotts chuckled at the idea of someone running against Sanford from his right, noting that the prospect would have been difficult to imagine years ago because Sanford was a “Tea Party guy before the Tea Party.”

The congressman’s winning streak includes his political comeback in the 2013 House special election. Sanford beat out a field of more than a dozen GOP primary candidates as well as an uncharacteristically tough general election challenge along the way.

After that, Sanford ran unopposed in the 2014 primary, and though he only won his 2016 primary by 12 points, he did so while barely spending against his opponent.

This time is different, thanks in no small part to Sanford’s relationship with Trump.

A lack of fealty to Trump has already endangered the reelection plans of incumbents like Rep. Martha RobyMartha Dubina RobyInsurgency shakes up Democratic establishment Dem House candidate claims Russians tried to hack campaign website Tag Obama for the rise of Trump, and now, socialism MORE (R-Ala.), who was forced into a primary earlier this month in retaliation for her past criticism of Trump, underscoring the potential peril for Sanford.

There’s been little public polling, a common dynamic in House races. One recent survey from Momentum National found both candidates virtually tied, but with a healthy one-fifth of the electorate undecided.

Sanford penned a New York Times op-ed in August of 2016 calling for Trump to release his taxes, a position he maintained after Election Day by signing on to a bill to empower Congress to take a look at Trump’s returns to decide on whether conflicts of interest exist.

Sanford has also been willing to criticize both Trump’s demeanor and policies as president — he told Politico in 2017 that Trump “has fanned the flames of intolerance” and referred to the implementation of the travel ban as “bizarre.”

Unlike during his 2016 campaign, in which he was able to largely ignore his primary opponent, Sanford has been forced to take on Arrington directly. She’s devoted much of her campaign to tarring Sanford as a “Never Trumper” and arguing that the district needs someone who will be a Trump ally.

Last month, her campaign released an ad that spliced together a handful of clips of Sanford railing on the president on cable news. More recent ads echo that strategy.

During a Monday morning radio debate on Charleston’s WTMA, Arrington argued that Sanford was hurting his constituents by not working to have a better relationship with Trump.

“You can’t have a seat at the table in the Oval Office because you’ve offended the president numerous times,” she said, seated next to Sanford in the studio.

“You should have the wherewithal not to go on CNN and bash our president. Instead, work with the president, work with leadership to get done what we want.”

Arrington has also been hammering Sanford on his infidelity. A recent Arrington ad called “Take a Hike” is filled with double entendres about how “Mark Sanford and the career politicians cheated on us,” and how it’s time for “Sanford to take a hike, for real this time.”

Sanford has fought back on multiple fronts. He’s put money behind a last-minute television ad accusing Arrington of voting for the “largest tax hike in South Carolina history,” argued that the voters have given him a second chance and framed Arrington as an idealist who won’t be an effective dealmaker in Congress.

He’s also sought to lessen the distance between himself and Trump by pointing to a recent vote score from Congressional Quarterly.

“I have supported the president 89 percent of the time,” he said.

“I love my brothers and sisters, but that doesn’t mean I agree with them 90 percent of the time. This is creating a distinction that doesn’t exist.”

The average GOP House member votes with Trump 95 percent of the time, according to a recent analysis by Knotts and fellow College of Charleston professor Jordan Ragusa.

Former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), who lost his primary in 2010 after criticism from conservatives on issues such as his view on climate change, lamented Sanford’s vulnerability as indicative of a “frightening” prioritization of Trump over conservative values.

“There’s something more fundamental here — whether we’ve entered a stage of tribalism where devotion to our tribe’s witch doctor is required and there is not an examination of the witch doctor’s credentials,” said Inglis, who told The Hill he still keeps in touch with Sanford.

“He’s voted 89 percent with Donald Trump, but it’s ‘Did you speak against Dear Leader?’... It really does goes beyond ideology and straight into superstition from leadership to witch doctor-hood.”