Can A Pro-Trump Libertarian Win Mark Sanford’s Old Seat?
When Republicans lost Congressman Mark Sanford’s House seat to a Democrat in 2018, it said much about the current state of the GOP.
The libertarian-leaning Sanford had been outspoken against Donald Trump, which led to his defeat in the GOP primary by Katie Arrington, a South Carolina state representative who associated herself heavily with the president (she even received a supportive Election Day tweet from Trump that many believe put her over the top). Sanford lost that race 47 percent to Arrington’s 50 percent.
This was framed by many as yet another example of an anti-Trump Republican being tossed out by his own party. And while that was what happened, it was also something else: a cautionary example of the potential limits of Trumpism even in red districts—as shown when Democrat Joe Cunningham defeated Arrington in the general election.
It was the first time a Democrat had won that seat in over three decades. Yet there’s good reason for Republicans to believe they can win it back in 2020.
South Carolina State Representative Nancy Mace is currently running against Cunningham. Mace is a former Sanford supporter who also worked for Trump’s presidential campaign. Before stumping for Trump, she backed Rand Paul for president early in 2016 and also supported his father Ron Paul’s White House bid in 2012.
She is one of four Republicans to have entered the race to challenge Cunningham, and is the current frontrunner by a significant margin. On October 14, Charleston’s Post & Courierreported that Mace had outpaced her opponents significantly in fundraising, raising over a half million since her June launch (the second highest Republican fundraiser only brought in $90,000 over the same period). An October poll conducted by the Columbia-based consulting firm First Tuesday Strategies put Mace at 19 percent and the other three GOP competitors at about 3 percent each.
Though many Republican voters remain undecided—60 percent of them, according to the poll—it’s not surprising that Mace so far has the most appeal.
This begins with her opposition to offshore drilling. While Trump, the Sanford-defeating Arrington, and most in the GOP nationally might support the practice, many Republican voters in Mace’s district do not, particularly those who live on the South Carolina shoreline. Sanford also opposed drilling, as does his Democratic successor Cunningham.
Days before announcing her campaign, Mace penned an op-ed for USA Today declaring, “I support Trump but not offshore oil drilling.”
The Democrats “need that single issue to define the race,” Mace told The American Conservative in a phone interview. “Me jumping into the race, I take that single issue off the table.”
Few also have a better backstory and appealing mix of pro-Trump and independent positions than Mace.
The 42-year-old mother is known to many in the South Carolina Lowcountry as the first woman to graduate from The Citadel military college in Charleston. She ran for U.S. Senate in 2014 as a libertarian-leaning Republican, challenging unrepentant hawk Senator Lindsey Graham in the GOP primary, and received 6 percent in a field of six candidates.
Some believe that one of the reasons Cunningham won in 2018 was due to an influx of Democratic voters. Mace dismisses this. “The district is not turning blue,” she said. “It might be turning purple, because there are more independents down here, but by and large this is a Republican district.”
I was born and raised in South Carolina’s First District, and agree with Mace’s assessment. In full disclosure, I have also known Mace personally for about a decade.
Mace understands the importance of the Trump factor in her race.
“President Trump played a big role in the Republican primary last year,” Mace said. “Sanford and others who were not at all supportive of the president on any issue or any particular policy, not a single one, those folks lost their primaries or lost their elections last year.”
“Folks down here know I worked for President Trump and helped get him elected,” Mace said. “But it’s not a blank check, right?”
I asked Mace about whether she, as a constitutionalist, could agree with the entirety of Trump’s agenda, and about Sanford’s hostile approach to the president as opposed to the more amiable tack taken by Senator Rand Paul.
“Senator Paul has done an amazing job supporting the president,” Mace said. “But also in showing that his ideology, where it aligns, it’s appropriate, and where it doesn’t, he’s got a voice on those issues.”
“I think Senator Paul, he understands that and where the president is coming from,” Mace said. “But also when he differs with him or the administration, he’s very respectful about how he does it.”
“I think that’s rare in what we’re seeing in today’s politics, on both sides of the aisle,” Mace added. “I think having a pragmatic approach to liberty issues is the only way to move the ball forward.”
Mace is a strong Second Amendment supporter, pro-life advocate (she sponsored a six-week fetal heartbeat bill), and staunch defender of civil liberties, including opposing mass surveillance.
I “can’t believe we’re having this debate,” Mace exclaimed. Government “spying on citizens without a warrant or warrant process? Our Bill of Rights and Constitution are not negotiable. It’s not a living document. These are rights that are guaranteed to every American citizen.”
On illegal immigration, Mace favors stronger security. “We have some on the Democratic side who want to have illegal immigrants in the system, not stand in line…and have it be this free for all,” Mace said. “We’re a nation of laws.”
Not surprisingly, Mace, the former Graham challenger, is also a firm believer in Trump’s America First foreign policy. She can recall when Republicans booed Ron Paul on a South Carolina presidential debate stage in 2012, only to have future president Trump make the same arguments about nation-building and “endless wars.” Trump even said, in a Myrtle Beach debate four years later, that George W. Bush “lied” about the Iraq war.
“It’s encouraging to see that [Trump] has been able to win that argument and get people onboard with that as a mission, because we are involved in too much overseas,” Mace says. “I think we have to look at our foreign policy and where our place is in the world and where it’s not.”
“We can’t constantly send billions and billions and billions of dollars overseas to countries who hate us and burn our flag,” Mace said.
Mace believes she alone can unseat Cunningham and return this South Carolina House seat to a Republican who is both pro-Trump and pro-liberty. We have to “find common ground with Trump supporters, and also those who don’t support him on every issue,” Mace said.
She believes the key is to attract a broad coalition of independents and others by “having a Republican candidate who can thread that needle and pull in fiscal conservatives, pull in Trump supporters, pull in military vets, and women too.”
So far, according to her fundraising and the polls, Nancy Mace is on point.