Anti-Trump Republicans better look out — voters might send you packing

Anti-Trump Republicans better look out — voters might send you packing

If a cat has nine lives, how many lives does a politician have?  We may find out, now that Rep. Mark SanfordMarshall (Mark) Clement SanfordThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump lauds tariffs on China while backtracking from more Sanford headed to New Hampshire amid talk of challenge to Trump Scaramucci: GOP may need to replace Trump for 2020 MORE (R-S.C.) has lost his seat to a state legislator named Katie Arrington in the South Carolina primary.  Sanford, who engineered a remarkable comeback to get his congressional seat, now has to start anew if he is to stay in public life.

Can’t be done, you say? That’s what they said when then-Governor Mark Sanford was forced to resign after it turned out he was in Argentina seeing his girlfriend (he was married at the time) and not hiking the Appalachian Trail as his staff asserted. Yet there he was, claiming Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottGOP Sen. Tim Scott says if he runs in 2022 it will be his last race When it comes to student debt, it is time to talk solutions Democrats call for Senate to return to vote on gun reform after two deadly mass shootings MORE’s (R-S.C.) 1st District seat a few years later, when Scott was appointed by Governor Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyHaley: 'Threats of China on full display' in Hong Kong Juan Williams: Trump's trouble with women Trump: Response to Cummings burglary 'not meant as a wise-guy tweet' MORE to the Senate.

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All was well and good until Sanford, always an iconoclastic libertarian, became an outspoken critic of President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump watching 'very closely' as Portland braces for dueling protests WaPo calls Trump admin 'another threat' to endangered species Are Democrats turning Trump-like? MORE, and, more than that, let himself be used by Anderson Cooper (who bizarrely claimed his Twitter account was hacked after a tweet calling Trump a “pathetic loser”) and others on CNN as the go-to conservative Republican whenever CNN was looking for someone, particularly a Republican, to bash the president.

 

Other mainstream (or, as conservatives like to say “liberal”) media had already found a Republican foil in Sanford. In July 2016, the Washington Post quoted Sanford as saying he "wasn't particularly impressed” with the nominee at a meeting of the Republican Conference. Along comes state legislator Katie Arrington, who positioned herself well with some clever ads as the Trump candidate. The choice, she said, came down to someone who spends his time bashing the president on TV and someone who will go to Washington and fight for the president’s program.

One issue the campaign was not about is “who is the real conservative?” which is what Republican primaries have traditionally been about.  A quick look at the American Conservative Union’s ratings shows that Sanford accumulated a lifetime rating of 91, one of the top numbers in the House of Representatives, while Arrington fit right in with the notoriously big spending South Carolina legislature, drawing a lifetime rating of 45, an “F” by anyone’s measure.  That is why Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanDemocratic Women's Caucus calls for investigation into Epstein plea deal DOJ releases notes from official Bruce Ohr's Russia probe interviews CNN slams GOP for not appearing on network after mass shootings, conservatives fire back MORE (R-Ohio) and other Freedom Caucus members tried to come to Sanford’s rescue at the very end.

No, there is no question the issue the election decided was whether the Republican electorate wanted a down-the-line Trump backer or someone with an independent streak who would go on TV and take on the president whenever he perceived Trump was wrong or said something that made his opponents cringe. And that was not a bad place to be for Katie Arrington.  A look at the polls shows that, although Trump’s overall approval rating hovered in the 40s, fully 80 percent of Palmetto State Republicans back the president.

The outcome is a clear signal to Republicans that open criticism of Trump is an invitation to disaster, particularly in a party primary. But there is a lesson for the general electorate as well. Trump critics, particularly those who allow the media to use them to bash Trump, can have the effect of turning off the pro-Trump voter turnout.

In Nevada, in 2016, Republican Joe HeckJoseph (Joe) John HeckAnti-Trump Republicans better look out — voters might send you packing How endangered GOP Sen. Dean Heller is seeking to hang on Bottom line MORE was running neck and neck for a Senate seat until he disavowed Trump after the “Access Hollywood” tape with Billy Bush came out. The reaction was so negative from Trump supporters that he had to walk his disavowal back. It was too late, and Heck lost what was considered to be a winnable seat. This year, Nevada Senator Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerThis week: Barr back in hot seat over Mueller report Trump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary MORE (R) has seemingly made his peace with Trump so as not to incur his supporters’ wrath.

We don’t yet know the outcome of the race in Alabama where incumbent Rep. Martha RobyMartha Dubina RobyThe House Republicans and Democrats not seeking reelection in 2020 Hurd retirement leaves GOP gloomy on 2020 Texas GOP lawmaker Conaway announces retirement MORE (R) was forced into a runoff with party-switcher Bobby Bright, who has also made support for Trump an issue, so it will be July 17 before it will be clear how deep the sentiment goes.  

But the lesson of South Carolina is clear: Republicans take on Trump at their peril and if their district happens to be one of those affluent, highly-educated districts that includes some anti-Trump Republicans in it, there will be a difficult balancing act ahead as the Republican candidate tries to navigate a path to victory.

Larry Hart is a senior fellow with the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Government Reform.