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South Carolina’s Mark Sanford Falls in GOP Primary

Frequent Trump critic becomes second incumbent to lose this year

South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford lost his primary Tuesday night. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford lost his primary Tuesday night. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford on Tuesday became the second incumbent of the year to fall in a Republican primary, losing to a challenger who questioned his loyalty to President Donald Trump.

With 99 percent of precincts reporting, state Rep. Katie Arrington was leading Sanford 51 percent to 47 percent when The Associated Press called the race.

Even before the race had been officially called, Sanford had conceded the race, and Arrington had declared victory. For the incumbent, it was his first electoral loss over a career that began with his first election to the House in 1994. 

Trump took aim at Sanford on Twitter just hours before the polls closed Tuesday in South Carolina.

Mark Sanford has been very unhelpful to me in my campaign to MAGA. He is MIA and nothing but trouble. He is better off in Argentina,” the president said, hinting at an earlier episode from the congressman’s time as South Carolina governor. Trump then told voters to support Arrington.

North Carolina Rep. Robert Pittenger was the first incumbent of the year to lose when he was defeated in his primary last month. Alabama GOP Rep. Martha Roby was forced into a runoff last week, taking less than 40 percent of the vote in her primary.

All three incumbents faced accusation of being insufficiently supportive of the president.

“It’s time for a conservative who will work with President Trump, not against him,” Arrington said in her closing TV spot attacking Sanford. Trump carried the 1st District by 13 points in 2016.

More than most Republicans in Congress, Sanford has been an outspoken critic of Trump’s policy and rhetoric.

Arrington poured about $430,000 of her own money into challenging Sanford, arguing that he had become a creature of Washington, more eager to hear himself criticizing Trump on TV than to get things done in Congress. 

She also tried to tap into longtime uneasiness with the incumbent, who’s been a familiar name to Lowcountry voters. After serving three terms in the House, he later served as governor for eight years, but his tenure was marred by his disappearance for several days in 2009. His office said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail but he was actually visiting his mistress in Argentina.  

“Bless his heart,” Arrington said in a recent TV spot filmed on a woodsy trail. “But it’s time for Mark Sanford to take a hike — for real this time.”

Sanford launched a comeback for his old seat in 2013, winning a special election. He withstood a spirited primary challenge from another state representative, Jenny Horne, in 2016. 

From the right

Arrington tried to run to Sanford’s right. She simultaneously hit the Freedom Caucus member  for not securing more federal funding for infrastructure for the district and for not being a real fiscal conservative.

The challenge forced Sanford to spend on TV advertising for the first time in five years. He attacked Arrington in one of his TV spots for voting for a gas tax increase. His other ads touted his commitment to securing the border and to “build the wall.” FreedomWorks and Tea Party Patriots stood behind the incumbent.

On Tuesday, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy broke with Trump to say he supported Sanford. Reps. Mark Meadows of North Carolina and Jim Jordan of Ohio, the respective current and former chairmen of the House Freedom Caucus, also stood by Sanford on Tuesday. 

Arrington ran with the backing of North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, an early Trump supporter in the district.  

Despite trying to run to Sanford’s right, Arrington told Roll Call last fall she would not want to join the hard-line conservative Freedom Caucus.

“I’m a Republican. I think our party is so fractionalized that we need to come back together,” she said in an interview in North Charleston in October.  

Sanford has been outspoken against the president, disagreeing with the administration on tariffs and offshore drilling. He’s called out the president for his rhetoric, saying he was “partially to blame” for the kind of incivility that led to the shooting at the GOP congressional baseball team’s practice last year.

Sanford has also split with own party, perhaps most notably in this coastal district, on human contributions to climate change. “I believe human activity is having a measurable effect on the environment,” he wrote in a 2007 Washington Post op-ed.  

Arrington argued that Sanford stakes out positions just to be contrarian.

“He keeps going against the president, doesn’t he?” she said last fall. “Climate change is something that has happened naturally, that’s why we are not living on ice anymore. It will go around and come around.”

Arrington will face Democrat Joe Cunningham in November. In announcing his campaign last summer, Cunningham became one of the first Democratic candidates to come out against Nancy Pelosi for speaker should the party take back the House. Cunningham ended the pre-primary reporting period with $150,000 to Arrington’s $199,000.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the general election Solid Republican.

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