A highly publicized extramarital affair didn’t end Mark Sanford’s political career. Nor did the revelation, less than a month before a 2013 special election for Congress, that he had to go to court because his ex-wife had accused him of trespassing. The National Republican Congressional Committee’s decision to cut off funding to him that year was also not a fatal blow. He won his next elections.
Then came Donald Trump.
Sanford has been one of the president’s most vocal Republican critics in Congress, and Republican primary voters punished him for it. Sanford lost Tuesday night to Katie Arrington, a state representative who made public support for Trump — and Sanford’s lack thereof — a central issue of her campaign.
"I've always been a realist, and at this point, based on the numbers I see, I think that I'll end up losing this election," Sanford said at his election night party, a little over an hour before the AP called the race.
Arrington declared victory at her own party, and made her allegiance clear. "We are the party of President Donald J. Trump. We are the party of Sen. Tim Scott. And now, Congressman Katie Arrington," she said to cheers.
Trump waded into the campaign in its final hours, endorsing Arrington late Tuesday afternoon. "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," Trump tweeted, nodding to Sanford's affair. Sanford responded to the tweet at his party Tuesday night, saying that while he is "neither for or against Trump," he stood by his decisions to disagree with Trump at times, even if they cost him an election.
Sanford is the second Republican House member to see primary trouble in as many weeks as a result of clashes with Trump. Last week, Alabama Rep. Martha Roby, who rebuked Trump in 2016 following the release of the Access Hollywood video, was forced into a runoff against a candidate who highlighted her comments while tying himself to Trump. She has made efforts to reconcile with Trump since he took office, but they were insufficient — she took just 39% of the vote.
Republican primary voters, it is becoming clear, are as willing to hold grudges as the president they support. The results are a shot across the bow of any Republican who would rebuke the Trump.
The Republican Party, Sanford said in his speech Tuesday night, is at an "inflection point."
"We had a big debate, and again, the promises that I've made and kept over the years aren't selling in this particular political climate," he said. "That does not mean that they're not relevant, and not important to our lives, but more importantly, as it relates to party, not important to sustaining the Republican Party."
Sanford, to be sure, provides a large target for an opponent, and Arrington did not ignore the classic hits. One ad, in which she spoke to the camera as she walked down a trail, concluded with an allusion to Sanford's most infamous scandal, telling Sanford to "Take a hike — for real this time."
But his loss is a boon for Democrats, who see an opportunity to compete in the district now that the incumbent has been ousted. Sanford was sitting on $1 million in his campaign account, whereas Arrington is likely to enter the general election with her war chest severely depleted. Sanford is the rare Republican concerned about global warming, and his conservationist views won him support from some more moderate voters in this coastal district. Arrington, meanwhile, positioned herself to Sanford’s right in the primary — leaving room for attorney Joe Cunningham, who won the Democratic primary Tuesday night, to potentially win over some of those voters.
"It’s a race to watch in November," DCCC chairman Ben Ray Luján said in a statement Tuesday night.
In nine campaigns over the course of 24 years, it is Sanford's first loss.
Alexis Levinson is a reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Alexis Levinson at email@example.com.
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