Will Voters Tell Mark Sanford To 'Take A Hike' For His Criticism Of Trump?

Jun 11, 2018
Originally published on June 11, 2018 9:54 am

Mark Sanford is a political survivor like few others.

As governor of South Carolina, he disappeared from the state and infamously claimed to be "hiking the Appalachian Trail" in 2009 when he was instead carrying on an extramarital affair in Argentina.

That scandal ended Sanford's marriage but he rode out the political storm and finished his second term in 2011.

Then against all odds, the Republican won a special election in 2013 and returned to the House of Representatives where he had first served in the 1990s.

But in Tuesday's GOP primary, Sanford faces what is perhaps his toughest electoral test yet — largely thanks to his vocal criticism of President Trump.

His challenger, state Rep. Katie Arrington, has made Sanford's lack of support for Trump the central message of her campaign.

In one ad, Arrington cheekily alludes to Sanford's past scandals, speaking to the camera as she's hiking herself.

"Mark Sanford and the career politicians cheated on us," she says. "Bless his heart — but it's time for Mark Sanford to take a hike — for real this time."

In a debate earlier this month, Arrington hammered home that point again, arguing she would be a loyal foot soldier for Trump in ways Sanford hasn't.

"Mark Sanford has spent the better part of two years bashing our team captain, President Trump, on CNN," she said. "He's made it his actual job."

Sanford, who's carved out a more libertarian perch in the House and is often prone to philosophical musings, pushed back that he saw his role as a representative differently — to listen, first and foremost, to the people, not to the president.

"We gotta ask ourselves, who's the captain? And I would argue, at the end of the day, every one of you are. That I believe in an inverted political system. I believe that power and authority ought to rest at the most local level possible," Sanford said.

Sanford hasn't been shy at voicing his disgust with Trump and his distaste for the president's brash style of politics and frequent bending of the truth.

After a shooting at a congressional baseball practice last year, that almost took the life of Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., Sanford went on MSNBC and said that Trump was, in part, to blame for the decline in political discourse in the country.

"I would argue that the president has unleashed — it's partially, again, not in any way totally — but partially to blame for demons that have been unleashed," Sanford said.

In February 2017, he told Politico Magazine he was unimpressed with Trump "because at some level he represents the antithesis, or the undoing, of everything I thought I knew about politics, preparation and life."

Sanford also acknowledged in that interview that "people who live in glass houses can't throw stones," and that he'd had his own problems with fidelity — namely the very public downfall of his marriage after his own affair.

After his wife and closest political adviser, Jenny Sanford, divorced him, he nonetheless won his House seat, representing the Charleston-based 1st Congressional District, which stretches along the Atlantic coast. And onetime Sanford allies point out that despite his sometimes unconventional approach to politics, he's nevertheless won every race he's ever run thus far, dating back to his first House race in 1994.

Even with that record, this Tuesday's primary is Sanford's most serious challenge by far, said former South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Matt Moore, who previously worked for Sanford. Arrington is well-funded, putting some of her own money into her campaign, and has run a vigorous race against Sanford.

"But, he always wins. So despite curious things he might have said about President Trump or previous troubles while he was governor, he just keeps winning," Moore said.

Local observers note that district is less conservative than others in the state due in part to many transplants to the area in and around Charleston. So seizing on Sanford's anti-Trump comments may not have as much resonance as Arrington hopes for.

"[Sanford] has always been perceived as a maverick who thinks independently, so it's kind of consistent with his persona to take that position" against Trump, said Larry Kobrovsky, the Charleston County GOP chairman, who considered challenging Sanford at one time.

During the campaign, Sanford hasn't apologized for his comments about Trump but he has pointed out that, policy-wise, the two still overwhelmingly align.

"Have I disagreed with the president some? Yes. Have I been up front about that? Yes. But I've been equally up front in the overwhelming number of my votes in being with the president and being with the Republican Party," Sanford pushed back during his debate with Arrington.

But in the era of Trump, that hasn't been enough for other politicians. Just last week, Republican Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama was forced into a runoff due to her own criticism of Trump. And prominent Trump critics like Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake decided not to run for re-election given the current direction of the Republican Party.

Gibbs Knotts, the chairman of the political science department at the College of Charleston, says it's a trend in this year's primaries.

"It seems like it's the cardinal sin amongst primary voters, particularly primary voters in certain parts of the country," said Knotts. "If you speak out against Trump, and if you're anti-Trump, or not 100 percent behind him, for a Republican in the South, that can be a really difficult situation."

Sanford could well find himself in that same scenario on Tuesday. A poll released last week showed the incumbent in a virtual tie with Arrington with plenty of voters still undecided. Because there is a third candidate on the ballot, if neither candidate tops 50 percent, the top two finishers will face off again in a runoff in two weeks.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's one reason many Republicans may be very careful about criticizing President Trump - most Republican voters approve of him, and Republican lawmakers are going through primaries. Tomorrow's South Carolina primary is a test for a Republican who tried a different approach. Mark Sanford is the state's former governor who famously had an affair and claimed he was hiking the Appalachian Trail at the time. Sanford survived that embarrassment and is now a congressman who has criticized President Trump. And NPR's Jessica Taylor reports that calls for another survival act.

JESSICA TAYLOR, BYLINE: Mark Sanford doesn't like to fall in line, so it's not surprising he's blamed the leader of his party for the decline in political discourse. Here's what he told MSNBC last June following the shooting at a Congressional baseball practice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK SANFORD: I would argue that the president has unleashed - is partially - again, not in any way totally but partially to blame for demons that have been unleashed.

TAYLOR: His primary challenger, State Representative Katie Arrington, has seized on those comments and taken digs at his infamous sex scandal while she's at it.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD, "TAKE A HIKE")

KATIE ARRINGTON: I'm running for Congress to get things done, not to go on CNN to bash President Trump. I'll cut spending, strengthen our military and get rid of the career politicians. Bless his heart, but it's time for Mark Sanford to take a hike - for real this time.

TAYLOR: Former South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Matt Moore, who once worked for Sanford, says this is his most serious challenge so far.

MATT MOORE: But he always wins. So despite, you know, curious things he might have said about President Trump or previous troubles while he was governor, he just keeps winning.

TAYLOR: At a recent debate, Arrington argued she would be a loyal foot soldier for the president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARRINGTON: Mark Sanford has spent the better part of two years bashing our team captain, President Trump, on CNN. He's made it his actual job.

TAYLOR: The congressman rebutted that it's his job to listen to the people, not the president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANFORD: We've got to ask ourselves, who's the captain? And I would argue at the end of the day, every one of you are. And I believe in an inverted political system. I believe that power and authority ought to rest at the most local level possible.

TAYLOR: And Sanford said he hasn't obstructed Trump's agenda.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANFORD: Have I disagreed with the president some? Yes. Have I been upfront about that? Yes. But I've been equally upfront in the overwhelming number of my votes in being with the president and being with the Republican Party.

TAYLOR: Just last week, Republican Congresswoman Martha Roby of Alabama was forced into a runoff because of her own criticism of Trump. And prominent Trump critics like Tennessee Senator Bob Corker and Arizona Senator Jeff Flake decided not to run for re-election given the current direction of the Republican Party. College of Charleston political science chair Gibbs Knotts says it's a trend in this year's primaries.

GIBBS KNOTTS: Seems like it's the cardinal sin amongst primary voters, particularly primary voters in certain parts of the country. Yes, if you speak out against Trump, or if you're anti-Trump or not a hundred percent behind him - you know, for a Republican in the South, that can be a really difficult situation.

TAYLOR: Tomorrow Sanford will find out if voters will indeed tell him to take a hike. Jessica Taylor, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF E*VAX'S "THE MULE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.