It’s natural to think of U.S. Representative Mark Sanford as perpetually embattled. The South Carolina Republican did, after all, face all sorts of pressure to resign as governor of his state (backed up by credible impeachment threats) after his internationally renowned 2009 scandal involving an extended absence from his duties explained as a head-clearing hike on the Appalachian Trail when he was actually canoodling with an extramarital lover in Argentina.
But Sanford finished his second term as governor in 2011, and then reclaimed his old U.S. House seat in a 2013 special election when it was vacated by the appointment of Tim Scott to the Senate, defeating Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch in a heavily conservative coastal Carolina district. In 2014 he managed to avoid serious opposition, but in 2016 drew a primary challenge from an underfunded state legislator who made the mistake of running to his left. He also invited a lot of trouble by disrespecting Donald Trump before the 2016 general election, and unlike most Republican officeholders, did very little to make up for it afterwards. Indeed, in a widely discussed 2017 Politico Magazine profile he cited his close brushes with political disaster and cast his fate to the political winds:
[His past gives] Sanford a unique sense of liberation to speak his mind about a president whose substance and style he considers a danger to democracy. “I’m a dead man walking,” he tells me, smiling. “If you’ve already been dead, you don’t fear it as much. I’ve been dead politically.”
Now, for the moment at least, Sanford really is dead politically after losing Tuesday night’s GOP primary to state legislator Katie Arrington, who cleverly ran a challenge that was based half on loyalty to Trump and half on reminding Republicans of Sanford’s cheesy history of personal missteps. This is, remarkably, the first election of any kind for any office that Sanford has ever lost in nearly a quarter-century of putting his name out there. He was obviously vulnerable on multiple fronts, but it seems his ultimate Achilles’ heel wasn’t adultery or embarrassing the people of South Carolina or his occasionally too-libertarian-for-his-own good ideology. It was declaring independence from President Trump at a time when both the GOP and Sanford’s beloved conservative movement were abjectly surrendering to the mogul.
The irony is that despite Arrington’s MAGA-hood, Trump nearly lost his chance to take credit for Sanford’s demise. He didn’t get around to endorsing her until less than three hours before the polls closed on primary day. That likely won’t keep him from taking credit.
Sanford’s demise could make this House district more competitive in November, though it remains pretty conservative. It would be foolish to count the soon-to-be-former congressman down and completely out. But Lord knows the man earned his retirement the hard way.