The Daily 202: Mark Sanford's primary loss shows the peril of crossing Trump

Wednesday , June 13, 2018 - 9:02 AM

James Hohmann

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

Mark Sanford survived the fallout from his “hike” on the Appalachian Trail, but he couldn’t survive the backlash to his past criticisms of President Donald Trump.

The South Carolina congressman, once seen as a credible contender for the presidency, lost the Republican primary on Tuesday in his bid for re-election to the House. He’s opposed the president’s tariffs on steel and aluminum, called on Trump to release his tax returns and faulted him for “fanning the flames of intolerance.”

“It may have cost me an election in this case, but I stand by every one of those decisions to disagree with the president,” Sanford said during his concession speech at a bar outside Charleston.

His challenger successfully framed the contest as a referendum on the president, and an 11th hour endorsement from Trump himself may have gotten her across the finish line. Katie Arrington, a state legislator, got 50.5 percent of the vote to Sanford’s 46.6 percent, beating him by a little more than 2,500 votes.

“We are the party of President Donald J. Trump,” she said in her victory speech.

This upset is the latest proof point that personal loyalty to Trump has become a litmus test in the GOP for anyone seeking public office. It also helps explain why so few Republicans have been willing to break with the president, even when he drifts far afield from conservative orthodoxy on trade, national security and so many other issues. And Sanford’s defeat will likely have a chilling effect going forward that deters GOP lawmakers who might otherwise be inclined to publicly speak out about Trump’s policy pronouncements or controversies of a more personal nature.

- It took just six minutes after Air Force One touched down at Andrews, after a 23.5-hour journey back to Washington from his summit with Kim Jong Un in Singapore, for Trump to dance on Sanford’s political grave. While still sitting on the tarmac, the president tweeted:

“My political representatives didn’t want me to get involved in the Mark Sanford primary thinking that Sanford would easily win - but with a few hours left I felt that Katie was such a good candidate, and Sanford was so bad, I had to give it a shot. Congrats to Katie Arrington!”

Trump tweeted while polls were open on Tuesday that “Sanford has been very unhelpful to me in my campaign to (make America great again). He is MIA and nothing but trouble.” The president, despite being enmeshed in the Stormy Daniels saga, even took a jab at the sex scandal that ruined Sanford’s own presidential ambitions.

“He is better off in Argentina,” Trump tweeted, referring to where the then-South Carolina governor traveled in 2009 to visit his mistress when he announced he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. (Sanford’s wife at the time, Jenny, recently remarried.)

Another factor that might have played a role in the president’s last-minute tweet: One of Arrington’s consultants, Mike Biundo, worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign.

- Regardless of how it came about, no ambitious Republican wants to be the next Sanford, Jeff Flake or Bob Corker - three Republicans who are leaving Congress at the end of the year as a result of disagreements with Trump. The two senators announced retirements rather than risk defeat in a primary. Historians may wind up treating these men as profiles in courage, but for now they’re cautionary tales.

In Alabama, Republican Rep. Martha Roby was forced into a runoff last week because the president’s supporters are still angry at her for saying Trump should drop out immediately after the “Access Hollywood” tape emerged in October 2016. Many don’t care that she’s been a reliable vote for the Trump agenda since he took office.

Even former rivals now go out of their way to emphasize support. Mitt Romney has embraced Trump to win a Republican primary for Senate in Utah, and Ted Cruz has become whatever the opposite of a Never Trumper is to get re-elected in Texas.

Even Sanford tried to downplay his differences with Trump during the final days of the campaign. “I’ve supported the president 89 percent of the time,” Sanford said during a debate on Monday. “Talk to my brother and sister - I don’t agree with them 89 percent of the time!”

- Corker, the Republican senator from Tennessee who seems to feel more liberated because of his retirement, complained bitterly Tuesday when GOP leadership blocked consideration of an amendment he introduced that would let Congress overturn some of the president’s latest protectionist moves.The chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee criticized Republicans for being too afraid to “poke the bear” (aka Trump).

“‘Gosh, we might poke the bear’ is the language I’ve been hearing in the hallways,” Corker said in a floor speech. “We might poke the bear! The president might get upset with us as United States senators if we vote on the Corker amendment, so we’re going to do everything we can to block it.”

Corker noted that this was really the only opportunity for Congress to confront Trump on trade, and that conservative colleagues who have spent years pronouncing themselves disciples of free trade are now looking the other way because they got telephone calls and personal pleas from the president. “The United States Senate, right now, on June 12, is becoming a body where, well, we’ll do what we can do, but my gosh, if the president gets upset with us, then we might not be in the majority,” said the retiring Corker. “And so let’s don’t do anything that might upset the president.”

- Corker’s comments came on the same day that moderate Republicans in the House failed in their quest to force a vote on a bipartisan bill to protect the “dreamers” from deportation. Several lawmakers are sympathetic to the effort, but they didn’t want to get crosswise with the White House.

- Bigger picture, loyalty to Trump largely paid off for Republicans across all five states that held primaries on Tuesday. The former chairman of Trump’s Virginia campaign, Corey Stewart, won the GOP nod to challenge Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, even though most of the party establishment backed his opponent. “Republican voters preferred Stewart, who has promised a ‘vicious’ campaign, over a more mainstream option in Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, a former Green Beret who had little name recognition but support from the party establishment,” Gregory S. Schneider reports.

“At Stewart’s election night party at the Electric Palm Restaurant, overlooking the Occoquan River in Woodbridge, ... the loudspeaker blared ‘Sweet Home Alabama.‘ Stewart was quick to make clear that he plans to run this race in the manner and style of his political hero, down to his hand gestures. (As the crowd chanted ‘Lock her up!‘), Stewart smiled slyly, then replied: ‘That might just happen, by the way. And Timmy, too. Oh, we’re gonna have a lot of fun between now and November, folks.‘

“Stewart railed against ‘criminal illegal aliens,‘ adding, ‘by the way, they are animals.‘ He said that Virginia can choose to let them overrun the state, or ‘we can arrest them, deport them back to the country they came from and build the wall.‘ ... Stewart gained a statewide following after his strong showing last year (in the gubernatorial primary against Ed Gillespie) but also attracted notoriety after associating with white supremacists.”

- Meanwhile, Republicans who have distanced themselves from Trump found themselves in hot water. Rep. Barbara Comstock, who represents an affluent suburban district in Northern Virginia that Hillary Clinton carried, got an unexpectedly low 61 percent of the vote in her primary. Her challenger attacked her aggressively for opposing the GOP bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act and for chastising the president over his willingness to shut down the federal government.

- Underscoring rising polarization, the litmus test on the right is happening at the same time Democrats try to outdo one another in who can most stridently oppose the president in their primaries. But in Virginia, the candidates who were favored by party chieftains and seen as most electable bested more liberal insurgents.

State Sen. Jennifer Wexton, for example, beat five other Democrats in the race to take on Comstock. “Wexton won about 42 percent of the vote, besting her nearest rival, anti-human-trafficking activist Alison Friedman, by almost 20 points,” Jenna Portnoy reports. “Wexton, the establishment favorite, ran on her legislative record and the strength of endorsements from Gov. Ralph Northam, D, and Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va. ... In a primary where Democrats mostly agreed on the issues, Wexton avoided moving too far to the left, while a rival, Army veteran Dan Helmer, wanted to impeach Trump, legalize marijuana and institute a Medicare-for-all option. Friedman, who worked at the State Department on human-trafficking policy during the Obama administration, also posed a threat based on the size of her campaign treasury. Helmer and Friedman criticized Wexton for voting for a bipartisan guns deal in Richmond that expanded concealed-carry rights but also added protections for domestic-violence victims.”

Democrats also chose Elaine Luria to face Rep. Scott Taylor, R, in the Hampton Roads area and Abigail Spanberger to challenge Rep. Dave Brat, R, in the district north of Richmond.

- Trump celebrated Stewart’s victory this morning, tweeting:

“Congratulations to Corey Stewart for his great victory for Senator from Virginia. Now he runs against a total stiff, Tim Kaine, who is weak on crime and borders, and wants to raise your taxes through the roof. Don’t underestimate Corey, a major chance of winning!”

- But many mainstream Republicans in Virginia worry that Stewart being at the top of their ticket will cost them down the ballot, especially in these battleground House races.

- A president wading into primaries the way Trump did in South Carolina is not unprecedented, but it doesn’t always work. In the 1938 midterms, Franklin Roosevelt traveled to the South to endorse and campaign for primary challengers to sitting Democratic senators who he felt weren’t sufficiently supportive of his agenda. But he got whupped, and FDR’s picks lost.

- Looking ahead, Sanford’s loss foreshadows that there will be little appetite among Republicans for a 2020 primary challenger to Trump - despite all the speculation from the chattering class about who might do it. “Even as Trump was winning the presidential election, his net favorability (favorable-unfavorable) rating among Republicans in an average of polls was just +50 points,” CNN’s Harry Enten notes. “Trump’s net favorability among Republicans is up to +71 percentage points on average. ... Trump’s approval rating (a slightly different measure than favorable rating) stands at 87% in the latest Gallup poll. To put that in perspective, only two other presidents since 1950 have had higher approval ratings among their own party heading into a potential presidential primary. The idea of a Republican opposing George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan (who had approval ratings among Republicans most similar to Trump) seems nutty on its face.”

- Sanford’s career arc has followed the GOP’s over the last quarter century. The 58-year-old had never lost an election until Tuesday. He was first elected to the House as part of the Class of 1994. Long a fiscal conservative, Sanford became a rock star on the right for his outspoken criticism of the stimulus package that Barack Obama signed soon after taking office. He served out his second term as governor even after the sex scandal and then got elected back to Congress in a 2013 special election. He became a leader in the House Freedom Caucus when he returned.

The first time Sanford spoke out publicly about Trump was in July 2016, when Trump appeared not to grasp the basics of the Constitution during a meeting with House Republicans. “I wasn’t particularly impressed,” Sanford told reporters at the time. “It was the normal stream of consciousness that’s long on hyperbole and short on facts. At one point, somebody asked about Article I powers: What will you do to protect them? I think his response was, ‘I want to protect Article I, Article II, Article XII,‘ going down the list. There is no Article XII!”

One of Arrington’s commercials described Sanford as a “Never Trumper” and included a montage of him criticizing the president during cable news appearances. “Enough is enough,” she said to camera. “I want to go to Congress to support President Trump’s bold conservative agenda.”

“I’m running for Congress to get things done, not to go on CNN to bash President Trump,” she said in another ad.

“It’s time for a conservative who will work with President Trump, not against him,” she said in a third.

Sanford’s closing ads emphasized his support for the bulk of Trump’s agenda. “Overwhelmingly, I’ve voted with the president, and a long list of independent scorekeepers will tell you so,” he said to camera. In another spot, he said he has “joined with the president ... to secure the border and build a wall.”

- Seeing the writing on the wall, Sanford marveled at how much times have changed. “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,” the congressman told the New York Times before polls closed Tuesday. “I’ve never experienced that before. With some people, the allegiance to ideas is secondary to their belief in the importance of their allegiance to a person.”


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