Flashback 2018: The Last Ride of Mark Sanford?
Right ending, wrong story
Note: I originally wrote this in June 2018 after Sanford lost his primary to Katie Arrington. The premise, in short, is Sanford lost more by his own hand than someone else’s. Arrington lost the November 2018 election to Democrat Joe Cunningham, who served one term. Arrington is back to challenge U.S. Representatative Nancy Mace in the 2022 Republican primary for SC-1.
On South Carolina’s 2018 primary night, political observers closely watched former Governor and then-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, 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 had already nailed the Sanford pelt on the wall. Trump critics pointed to this race as a warning: you will lose if you don’t give yourself over to Trump 100 percent. The loss helped cement a national narrative pushed by the media and Trump himself. Politics loves a straightforward narrative because if you’re explaining, you’re losing.
Here’s the problem: It’s not that simple. If you started watching this race a week out, you missed an awful lot.
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, in essence, politically dead. Democrats saw their best shot at the seat in decades. Despite being outspent by his opponent, Sanford, with his plywood campaign signs and a life-sized cardboard cutout of Nancy Pelosi, emerged victoriously and 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 2016 congressional primary, he won by a closer-than-expected margin of 56 to 44 percent.
This, by the way, just a year after Horne stood tearfully on the floor of the South Carolina House of Representatives explaining why she would vote to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House grounds. The flag removal became a central response to the 2015 racially-motivated murder of the Emanuel Nine at the Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston. Sanford supported the removal of the flag, but Horne voted for it, and a significant number of voters held her accountable.
This should have set alarm bells off. No matter how little time or money you spend campaign, Sanford is a household name and there is no excuse for not seeing this as a problem. The response should have been to invest heavily in building grassroots and presence or call it quits before you lose a race. Unless you need someone else to do the job.
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. Given that all of Sanford’s negatives were already baked in, the “Trump Card” was the only 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 runoff1. The national analysis was that Sanford simply became another #NeverTrump victim. To reach that conclusion, one has to ignore many obvious non-Trump factors.
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.
Campaign on the Cheap: In most of Sanford’s critical elections, he had a campaign staff, campaign manager, and a plan. By 2018, Sanford was the candidate, campaign manager, and handled his own press. He spent a half-million dollars in the primary cycle and, on primary night, had more than $1.3 million on hand. Some chalk it up to Sanford being frugal, but he’s not new at this. Based solely on my history of working for him, this looked like a dive from the outset.
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 drive 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. He fought the battle on her court, intentionally, and lost.
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 2018, if you consider it active then. 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. The 1990s version of Mark Sanford walked from one end of his district before every election. Following his scandal, he was more prone to lecturing on Facebook about the evils of the national debt and spending little time connecting with voters - what used to be his strength.
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. We battled that by presenting several places where Sanford acted and even implemented change. After 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. On numerous occasions, I uttered the line, “No one gives a shit about your Facebook posts” and instead pushed for action. He had lost interest, and so had I, so I moved on, and he stayed the same.
Risk It to Get the Biscuit: Sanford staked out risky political territory to build credibility for future battles. 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 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, worn out by his scandal, kept his head down on implementing policy and just spent time talking about it. Voters see that as a weakness, and they should.
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 the race was really about Mark Sanford. Representative Arrington and her supporters will stick with the usual political David vs. Goliath story: hustle, loyalty, and “it” factor. Not to dismiss it, but losing campaigns also have those things. Remove just one aspect of the perfect storm, and the story would be, “Sanford survives Trump assault.” The more accurate headline is, “Sanford finally gives up.”
Sanford’s 2018 primary was not short on hard political shots. This is not new to him; his 1994 congressional primary and 2002 gubernatorial primaries went negative. Sanford 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. You have to bother to shape one and put it out there to find out if that’s true.
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 love 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. It wasn’t lost on me that in loss, he had his clearest voice.
At the national level, members of Congress are expected to either defend the President or speak truth to power. It’s a losing proposition because someone else is setting the agenda either way. 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 congressional leadership is the only team in D.C. with a worse red-zone offense than the
Redskins Football Team Commanders.
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. Only one group can stop this cycle, and that’s the voters. Time will tell when and if that happens.2
In South Carolina, candidates must receive 50 percent plus one or face a runoff against the second-place candidate.
Still waiting on this four years later.