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Mark Sanford’s troubles did not begin with Trump

Greg Nash

On June 12, President Donald Trump launched a Twitter attack on Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C). “Mark Sanford has been very unhelpful to me in my campaign to MAGA. He is MIA and nothing but trouble. He is better off in Argentina.”

He went on to argue that Sanford’s opponent, Katie Arrington, is “tough on crime and will continue our fight to lower taxes.” The following morning, after Sanford’s decisive 51-46 percent primary loss to State Representative Katie Arrington, some in the media were ready to give Trump credit for Sanford’s loss.

{mosads} Fortune, for instance, opined that Trump’s Twitter attack “crushed” Sanford, and the Huffington Post claimed that the tweet was the “finishing blow.” Even Sanford seemed to think that Trump did him in.


But did he? Although Sanford had sought to distance himself from Trump over the past year, Trump had not weighed in on the primary before Tuesday — a fact that he admitted the next morning in another tweet.

The snarky comment about Argentina suggests some knowledge about Sanford’s past, but you could argue that pretty much every Republican candidate aspires to be tough on crime and interested in lowering taxes. The tweet didn’t exactly show a deep understanding of the race. It suggested somebody told Trump to say something, fast.

Furthermore, the polls in South Carolina closed at 7p.m., so even if we assume that everyone knew about Trump’s tweet the moment it was tweeted, it defies logic to imagine that enough voters were swayed by it to make a difference in the outcome.

Sanford argued that he was within a few hundred votes of forcing Arrington into a run-off, but in a low turnout primary election it seems implausible that either candidate would have the sophistication to measure the allegiances of primary voters while the polls were still open.

In 2016, candidate Trump had a pretty lousy record of picking winners in GOP primaries. He endorsed few candidates, but those he did endorse or sort-of endorsed, such as North Carolina Congresswoman Renee Ellmers, Paul Ryan’s (R-Wisc.) primary opponent Paul Nehlen, and John McCain’s primary opponent Kelli Ward, do not appear to have benefitted from the support.

Trump’s record in special elections has been no better. And Sanford has had trouble locking down Republican support in his district since his return to Congress. He faced a different state legislator in his 2016 primary, holding onto his seat by a 56 to 44 percent margin. Both years’ primaries had very low voter turnout, however — Sanford actually received 9,000 more votes in 2018 than he had in 2016.

Whether this is because of lingering bad feeling about Sanford’s affair and divorce, or merely a matter of Republican heterogeneity in the district, it doesn’t look like Sanford’s troubles began with Trump. The most one can say is that South Carolina voters did not reward Sanford for his occasional opposition to Trump.

The late-afternoon tweet, then, was a cheap opportunity for Trump to claim credit for something he didn’t really do — to side with the winning team when the game is nearly over. Not only does he get credit for winning a race that was already decided, he gets credit for daring.

CNN reported on June 13 that Trump had defied his advisors when he tweeted about the race. Trump had issued rather tepid endorsements of mainstream Republicans in the Alabama Senate election and in a few other intra-party conflicts, but here, he was going with his gut.

Why does this matter? In American politics, perception matters more than reality. If the dwindling coterie of #NeverTrump Republicans can be led to believe that crossing the president will yield primary defeat, then they will be less willing to speak up.

Sanford, like Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), and a few other occasional Trump skeptics, is a solid conservative. Trump won here without actually having to go into battle. Sanford, in a perverse way, wins, because he can blame his defeat on Trump, make himself a sort of martyr to the cause instead of blaming his own campaigning skills.

Democrats win too, however. If Democrats are able to paint the Republican Party as hopelessly beholden to Trump, then Republicans who have more to worry about in the general election than Sanford would have, or than Arrington will, are vulnerable. Democrats can make a case that all Republicans are Trump enablers.

One can make a case that the Republican Party, or the agenda that sincere conservatives espoused in the years before Trump, has taken another hit. It used to be that governing parties included a range of ideological views, and that they included many politicians who kept their distance from the party’s leaders. Perhaps Trump has rewritten this rule, but the evidence isn’t there yet. Lots of people have reasons to say that his tweet mattered, but that doesn’t mean it’s what did Mark Sanford in.

Robert G. Boatright is a professor of political science at Clark University and the director of research at the National Institute for Civil Discourse.

Tags Donald Trump Jeff Flake John McCain Mark Sanford Paul Ryan Renee Ellmers Trey Gowdy

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