This week has demonstrated once again the extent to which the Republican Party is owned heart, mind, and soul by Donald J. Trump, whose racist “love it or leave it” tweets about four duly elected members of Congress reached new lows, even for him. His party’s leaders have for the most part either pitched in lustily with their own smears of “the Squad” or tried to change the subject.
But it does appear that at least technically, Trump will likely face a challenge, albeit not a very threatening one, for the GOP’s presidential nomination in 2020. Former Massachusetts governor William Weld is already in the field. He may soon be joined by another former governor (and congressman), Mark Sanford of South Carolina, according to the Charleston Post and Courier:
Sanford, in an exclusive interview Tuesday with The Post and Courier, confirmed he will take the next month to formulate whether he will mount a potential run against Trump as a way of pushing a national debate about America’s mounting debt, deficit and government spending …
Since leaving office in January, Sanford said he has been privately mulling whether to run for the nation’s highest office. He described the internal debate as a drumbeat that never went away.
“I’m a Republican. I think the Republican Party has lost its way on debt, spending and financial matters,” he said.
Sanford’s political career has been notable for horrific U-turns and unlikely comebacks. As a three-term House member (in the 1990s) and then two-term governor, he was a prominent exemplar of movement-conservative Republicanism, and was even mentioned as a potentially viable presidential candidate. But then came the infamous 2009 incident in which he vanished from the performance of his official duties for six days, allegedly to go off the grid on a hike up the Appalachian Trail, when he was actually in the arms of an extramarital lover (his “soul mate,” he confessed, to the fury of his extremely influential soon-to-be-ex-wife) in Argentina. It made him, and to some extent his state, a global laughingstock, as The State recalled later:
A little more than a month later, former first lady Jenny Sanford moved out of the Governor’s Mansion with their sons, and the couple’s divorce played out in the media.
There were many calls for Sanford to resign, but he didn’t. He also avoided impeachment.
Sanford dropped out of politics for a while — until 2013, when he saw a political resurrection.
When Congressman Tim Scott, who occupied Sanford’s old House seat, was appointed by Sanford protégé and successor, Nikki Haley, to the U.S. Senate, Mr. Appalachian Trail won a special election and returned to the House (he had sort of formalized his relationship with his Argentinian friend, as they became engaged, but never married). For a while there, he returned to his old life as a fiscal scold and all-around Goldwater-style ideologue. But then he ran afoul of Trump, vocally criticizing his apostasies against conservative notions of fiscal discipline, free trade, and limited government, and accusing POTUS of turning the GOP into a “cult of personality.” While Sanford’s hiking history didn’t help, it was his refusal to bend the knee to Trump that attracted a 2018 primary challenge from the very Trumpy state legislator Katie Arrington, who benefited from a last-minute presidential endorsement:
Arrington went on to lose this conservative district to a Democrat in the general election, which gave Sanford some bitter vindication. But now (still under 60 after all these twists of fortune), Sanford is craving yet another comeback on the biggest possible stage.
Sanford is not going to throw even the hint of a scare at Trump, of course, but you could make the argument that he is a more appropriate challenger to the incumbent than Weld, the social liberal and 2016 Libertarian vice-presidential nominee. Sanford is a rigorous opponent of legalized abortion, a gun-rights advocate, and in every respect a faithful representative of the GOP as it existed before Trump arrived on the scene and made everything about himself and the good-old-days white patriarchal culture he promised to restore under the rubric of “greatness.” In a race against Trump, moreover, Sanford won’t be the candidate with the sketchiest personal background.
The former governor’s immediate problem is the strong possibility that many state Republican parties will abandon 2020 primaries or caucuses to spare Trump even the remote possibility of embarrassment. For Sanford, the most crucial decision will be in his own state, where presumably he has at least a limited following. Up until now, Governor Henry McMaster (who is very close to Trump) has voiced support for a primary in order to preserve South Carolina’s “place in line” as a protected early state (and first in the South) in the nominating process. Sanford’s bid could conceivably change that calculation, or could instead induce Palmetto State Republicans to kick out the jams for Trump and crush the nettlesome former governor once and for all.
More likely than not, Sanford’s one shot at an enduring legacy not dominated by jokes about the Appalachian Trail and “soul mates” probably lies not with his own fading political career, but with the still-rising star of Nikki Haley. If his former protégé does, as some suspect, wind up as a credible candidate to succeed Trump as Republican leader, he may have the last smile, if not the last laugh.