On South Carolina’s Primary night, political observers closely watched former Governor and current Congressman Mark Sanford’s race for the First Congressional District. His chief opponent, South Carolina Representative Katie Arrington, made Sanford’s criticisms of President Trump central to her campaign. The Tweeter-in-Chief even weighed in on Primary Day by attacking Sanford by name and endorsing Arrington via Twitter. By 11 pm, Sanford conceded defeat to supporters for the first time in his political career.
Pundits explained it was the revenge of President Donald Trump, given Sanford’s criticisms in the national media on several issues. It’s comfortable in this national political landscape to chalk it all up to another #NeverTrump takedown. The president and his supporters have already nailed the Sanford pelt on the wall. Trump critics point to this race as a warning: if you don’t give yourself over to Trump 100 percent, then you will lose. Politics loves a simple narrative because it projects the agenda you want it to project.
Here’s the problem: It’s not so simple. If you started watching this race a week out, you missed an awful lot.
Near Death Experience
Sanford’s second congressional run in 2013 made national headlines after he won, declaring him, “The Comeback Kid.” After his 2009 disappearance and revelation of an affair, Sanford was thought to be politically dead. Given Sanford’s past, Democrats thought they had their best shot at the seat in decades. Despite being outspent, Sanford with his plywood campaign signs and a life-sized cardboard cutout of Nancy Pelosi, returned to the U.S. House.
After getting a free pass in 2014, Sanford drew a primary opponent in 2016, then-South Carolina Representative Jenny Horne. Sanford ignored his opponent and spent virtually no money on the campaign, a tactic he’d employed in the 2006 gubernatorial primary. In the congressional race, he won by a closer-than-expected margin of 56 to 44 percent.
Under normal circumstances, this should have set alarm bells off. No matter how little you spend, if this is your natural point spread, you have a problem. Typically, the response is to invest heavily in building your grassroots and presence or call it quits before you lose a race.
The Trump Card
In the 2018 cycle, Sanford drew two opponents: Dmitri Cherny – a certified Bernie Bro – and first-term South Carolina Representative Katie Arrington. Cherny was largely ignored for most of the race, staking out the “none of the above” option for Republican primary voters. Arrington focused her attention on Sanford’s criticisms of Trump as her lead punch in the race. Given that all of Sanford’s negatives were already baked in, the “Trump Card” was a visible wedge issue to animate voters and generate support – basically playing the best hand she could against an undefeated opponent. Sanford responded by showing he voted with the President nearly 90 percent of the time and singled out their shared issue of “building the wall.” The race was close, but the last-minute tweet from Trump gave Arrington just enough votes to avoid a runoff. The national analysis was that Sanford simply became another #NeverTrump victim.
The Perfect Storm
There are no simple answers in politics, though that has not stopped an endless number of them being thrown at voters. In this case, a combination of factors came together to help form the perfect storm.
- The Best Defense is a Good Offense: Arrington got out early and framed the debate around Trump. Given Sanford’s long political career, there is a treasure trove of issues to choose from. Invoking Trump’s name is the political equivalent of clickbait, and once you get someone’s attention, you pound home the point. The moment Sanford started defending his voting record and pumping the signature issue of a wall, he ceded the advantage. It was Mark Sanford who pounded the line, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing” into my head. One candidate gets to define the debate, and if you aren’t that candidate, good luck winning.
- Court the Voters: Retail politics will never fall out of vogue. After winning the special election in 2013, Sanford’s political operation was more or less mothballed until this year. He is accessible, there is no question about that; he was ranked the third most accessible member of Congress. Campaigns require some infrastructure to energize the grassroots. To do otherwise means you might be asking for the votes of people who have already made up their minds.
- Actions Speak Louder than Words: Since Sanford’s 2002 gubernatorial primary, opponents have tried to paint him as “Dr. No,” arguing that he just stands against everything. Since being elected to Congress in 2013, Sanford used social media to communicate directly with his constituents. His long form Facebook posts articulated the subtle nuances of his positions on various issues. While these posts were a great transparency step, without actions other than a vote, it simply reinforced the Dr. No criticism.
Risk It to Get the Biscuit: Sanford staked out risky political territory in order to build credibility for future battles. In his first time through Congress, he introduced a Social Security reform bill touching the proverbial “third rail of politics.” By 1999, Sanford and then-Representative Tom Coburn offered an endless stream of amendments to force their own leadership to stop the raid on Social Security, and they prevailed. In 2004, then-Governor Sanford offered the first-ever detailed Executive Budget, the product of 40 budget hearings. When Sanford vetoed 106 items in the budget to eliminate an unconstitutional deficit, the South Carolina House overrode all but one in 90 minutes. Sanford responded by bringing two pigs, “Pork” and “Barrel” outside the doors of the House chamber to highlight the problem. Since 2013, Sanford has not found that signature issue to advance his vision.
So, was this defeat about Trump and whether a member of Congress faces the wrath of the voters if they don’t support him? If it fits your narrative, yes. Trump was an issue, but to be effective, there had to be the perfect storm. Representative Arrington and her supporters will stick with the usual politicl David vs. Goliath story: hustle, loyalty, and “it” factor. Not to dismiss it, but losing campaigns also have those things. Remove just one factor of the perfect storm and the story would be, “Sanford survives Trump assault.”
Sanford’s 2018 primary was not short on hard political shots. This is not new to him; both his 1994 congressional primary and 2002 gubernatorial primaries went negative. Sanford adeptly rose above the tone set by his opponent and projected a positive tone. Perhaps the climate has changed so much that such a message no longer resonates. If that’s true, we need to change it.
We had an axiom on Team Sanford: “Even in loss, there is victory.” Politics is a chess match, and sometimes, you sacrifice a bishop to take the king. Given the factors I discussed, losing might be the best possible outcome for Sanford. Ultimately, Mark’s passion for policy has far outweighed his passion for politics. His concession speech was a clear vision of fiscal restraint, free trade, foreign policy, and limited government. It was probably his best speech of the cycle. This is Sanford’s second political obituary, but who knows, the only thing better than a sequel is a trilogy.
At the national level, it seems members of Congress are expected to either defend the president or speak truth to power. It’s a losing proposition because either way someone else is setting the agenda. I believe Congress has a job to do and talking about the latest tweet and getting air time on cable news channels isn’t it. We’ve had serious issues to address, and for nearly a decade, Congress has not closed a deal. The only team in DC with a worse red zone offense than the Redskins is the congressional leadership.
There have to be legitimate differences between the parties, but right now, they both simply start the next election cycle after the last, promising it’s going to be different next time. There is only one group who can stop this cycle and that’s the voters. Time will tell when and if that happens.