The Next Thing
The Legend of Sanford for Governor
Since I will never write a book, I share stories of my political life here. The links at the end will catch you up. It’s free, so you get what you pay for. I’d love to hear your comments, so please share them.
When Mark Sanford got elected to the U.S. House as part of the Republican Revolution in 1994, he’d pledged to serve only three terms. The pledge was a Cinncinatus/George Washington citizen legislator narrative about serving and returning home rather than making politics a career. After leaving Congress in 2001, Sanford returned to the private sector until a group of Republicans met with him and convinced him to enter the 2002 South Carolina governor’s race. Like Cincinnatus, he answered the call to serve again. That’s the legend.
Sanford joined a crowded primary to replace outgoing Congressman Arthur Ravenel in South Carolina’s First Congressional District. In 1994, one of the hot political issues was term limits, and most of the candidates in the congressional race supported the concept. Sanford took it a step further by pledging to serve just three terms if elected. He’d discovered the power of contrast in politics.
In his 2000 book, The Trust Committed to Me, Sanford talked about the contrast in his term limit pledge during the 1994 campaign, saying:
My commitment to being a citizen legislator and my willingness to make term limits a central campaign issue eventually did set our campaign apart from the field. At a candidate forum in April 1994, I distributed term limit pledge sheets to the other candidates present and challenged them to join me in limiting themselves to three House terms. They weren’t amused. But I made my point.
Sanford’s early success as a candidate was defined not by paying lip service to an issue but by living it. In those days, I described him this way, “He’s willing to say what he believes, act accordingly, and live with the consequences.” Sanford cultivated an image, but it was more Daniel Day-Lewis-style method acting. His opponents underestimated it regularly, and that only hardened his image.
Sanford’s popularity in the First Congressional District was off the charts. After winning a contested 1994 election, no Democrat would take him on. Sanford drew the same token third-party opponent in the next two elections, winning re-election handily.
Cincinnatus Was Dictator Three Times, Right?
By Sanford’s third term, he thought there might be something else. He could run against the newly-elected Democratic governor or take on Senator Fritz Hollings in 2004. Running for Hollings’ Senate seat made more sense from a political standpoint since Hollings was from Charleston. The problem was sitting on the bench for two years.
In 1999, Sanford asked me for my advice on the next thing. He didn’t have a “political guy” in those days, so I was the closest thing he had, and it wasn’t close.
Sanford is also a notorious answer shopper, meaning he knows what he wants to do but wants it to be someone else’s idea. That way, he had someone else to blame if it went south or an exit strategy if he wanted to change his mind. He could teach a master class on political disposability.
I handed him an article about name recognition dropping the longer someone was out of office, so waiting for 2004 might not be ideal. We’d also spent enough time complaining about being “one of 435” in the House, and “one of 100” didn’t seem more appealing. I argued that real change came from being a chief executive and the Democrat sitting in Columbia was the better target.
Meet Jim Hodges
In 1998, Democrat Jim Hodges challenged South Carolina Governor David Beasley. At the beginning of 1998, Beasley was considered a shoo-in to win, and Hodges, the House Minority leader, took one for the team by entering the race. Hodges campaigned to be the “Education Governor,” promoting early childhood education and a lottery scholarship program. By November, Hodges was elected governor.
Several factors contributed to Hodges’ win: 1. Beasley proposed removing the Confederate flag from the Capitol Dome, pissing off his base, 2. Beasley campaigned against video poker, so operators flooded the state with campaign cash, 3. Fritz Hollings ran for re-election, flooding the state with campaign cash, 4. Nationally, Republicans took a hit over impeachment, and 5. The education lottery resonated with voters.
In September 1999, Hurricane Floyd headed for the east coast, a projected Category 4 hurricane bringing up memories of Hurricane Hugo that devastated South Carolina a decade earlier. Hodges ordered an evacuation, and roughly 400,000 people headed inland. Unfortunately, Hodges delayed reversing the travel lanes, and traffic jams began immediately.
Evacuees reported sitting in traffic for 12 or more hours trying to escape the hurricane. Most of the people stuck in traffic lived in Sanford’s district, and we were flooded with calls from motorists stuck on the interstate pleading for help. Fortunately, the storm turned north and made landfall in North Carolina as a Category 2. So the damage was more political than natural in South Carolina.
After Floyd, it was clear we should not only run against Governor Hodges but that we would. Sanford had not totally committed to the idea of running, but he was close enough. Everything I did was framed for the 2002 governor’s race from that point forward. His third term was his most active in legislation, amendments, floor speeches so we could define Mark Sanford before anyone else could.
In the 2000 presidential primary, Sanford had to pick between Texas Governor George Bush and Senator John McCain. Then-fellow House member Lindsey Graham was pressuring Sanford to support McCain.
Almost everyone who was eyeing the Republican nomination for governor had jumped on the Bush team. Former SC Governor Carroll Campbell, an icon in Republican circles, was on board, along with our biggest potential rival, Lt. Governor Bob Peeler.
Sanford liked McCain’s maverick style, his attacks on wasteful spending, and McCain’s campaign finance reform bill. Honestly, being the thousandth elected Republican to endorse Bush would make Sanford irrelevant. So the answer seemed perfectly obvious, contrast.
Sanford and Graham got front-row seats on the McCain campaign. They traveled with him around South Carolina and even around the country. When the primary came to South Carolina, the Bush/McCain showdown got ugly. One thing is for sure, both Sanford and Graham built statewide name recognition - even if it was campaigning for “the other guy.”
Did it work? Sanford ran for governor in South Carolina’s 2002 general election, and Graham ran for the U.S. Senate. Then-President Bush overlooked the 2000 primary, raising money and campaigning for both. So yes, it worked perfectly.
Fighting the Lottery
With Hodges in office, the campaign to enact the South Carolina Lottery began. Even with the disastrous Hurricane Floyd evacuation, Hodges had legislative support to enact a lottery. A proposed constitutional amendment was put to the voters for the November election to allow for the lottery.
So what would make a Libertarian-leaning Republican from the Lowcountry jump in to oppose the lottery in 2000? Contrast. In this case, it was a twofer. Sanford positioned himself against the governor and potential 2002 opponent. At the same time, Sanford needed to build his credentials with conservative evangelicals around the state.
In his 1994 campaign, Sanford answered a question about abortion in his typical esoteric, anti-government fashion and got tagged as moderate on the issue. Even after three terms of clearly pro-life votes, he didn’t lead on social issues, so he was still suspect.
Joining the “No Lottery” coalition put him front and center with evangelicals on an issue that fit his worldview. He could preach against the evils of the government, taking more of our money, no matter how voluntary or noble the cause, and make new friends in the process.
One of the most important people he got to know was John Rainey, an attorney from Camden, SC, philanthropist, and influential Republican donor. The list of services John performed for the people of South Carolina and beyond is too long to list here, but he was indeed a remarkable man.
John got to know and like Sanford during the unsuccessful campaign to oppose the lottery. They talked about South Carolina politics and where Sanford might fit. A Charleston-based Republican was well-suited to take on an incumbent Democrat, especially with Sanford’s popularity on the coast. So with some mild encouragement and introduction to the right polling firm, John paid for a poll showing Sanford had the potential to win the nomination and the general election.
Along with a handful of like-minded Republican supporters, John traveled to Charleston to show Sanford the poll and complete the story. Now, it wasn’t Sanford who wanted to run, but John and others who had enlisted him to the cause. And that’s how the story became the legend.
The rest, as they say, is history. Sanford won the 2002 gubernatorial race and served two terms.
A Few Thoughts
People express their anger to me that Sanford is a phony. Like that’s the worst thing, you can say about him. My question is, compared to what? If you genuinely believe politicians aren’t crafting narratives every day, you either aren’t paying attention, or you’re ignoring it. Either way, there’s a reason why people say, “politics is show business for ugly people.”
Think of it as the Facebook version of Sanford’s politics; he tries to show you all the good stuff so you can’t see the ugly stuff. At least he was only softening the edges of his ambition with a slightly more hopeful version. Compared to the toxic fear factor of today’s politics, it seems positively quaint.
Sanford also destroyed his own political career. Twice. Once in 2009 and again in 2018. The “not Trump enough” narrative clouded the second time because media folks wanted to use it, and Sanford was a willing accomplice (we’ll get to that). But both times, he made choices knowing the risks.
That’s not an excuse for anything that happened. Sanford’s earned the way people feel about him. He will be remembered as the guy who hiked the Appalachian Trail, erasing much of what he accomplished on his way to that failure. In the end, maybe that only matters to a handful of people, and that’s okay. But I was there for the roller coaster of rising, falling, redemption, and flaming out forged my views on politics. For better or worse, it was a helluva classroom.
I played an active role in setting the stage for his gubernatorial run and encouraged him every step of the way. For some reason, I felt obligated to take time away from my family to work on his 2002 campaign. And, after he won, play a part in helping him succeed as governor. When The Next Step came again, we had an entirely different conversation. That conversation set off a chain of events that helped shape how the 2009 disappearance happened and why I thought he was on the Appalachian Trail.
That story comes next.