I grew up in South Carolina’s 1st District, the one Mark Sanford has represented in Congress since 2013 (and in another tenure before that too). The former governor was seen as a comeback kid of sorts when he won that seat five years ago, after many had written off his political career due to an adultery scandal in 2009 that made national headlines.
Many outside South Carolina couldn’t understand how a man the media had dubbed “The Love Gov” could still be popular with voters in his district. But many in the South Carolina Lowcountry had not only begun to resent the massive negative media attention focused on their state and its governor, they also remembered Sanford as the staunch fiscal conservative who stood up to everyone, including the president and his own state Republican party.
Sanford’s independent streak endeared him to many conservatives at home. It’s also what cost him his seat in the 2018 Republican primary.
The Republican base, especially in red South Carolina, has become the Trump GOP just like everywhere else. The libertarian-leaning Sanford had been critical of the president to his obvious detriment, something state representative Katie Arrington exploited while portraying herself as the bona fide Trump candidate.
How did this happen? Why didn’t the Trump Republican win a conservative and historically Republican district?
The first hint for me that Arrington might not win came on a trip home about a month before the election.
A close relative, who to my knowledge has never voted any way other than Republican, told me they were considering voting for the Democrat. They said they believed Arrington did not come across well, or as authentic, and that the Democrat actually seemed more levelheaded in comparison. Cunningham had also received the backing of some local Republicans, due in part to his opposition to offshore drilling along South Carolina’s scenic coastline (something Sanford also opposed and Arrington supported).
But probably the biggest reason Arrington lost her close race was simply that she thought tying herself to Trump would be enough.
Yes, the GOP is undoubtedly Trump’s party at the moment, and a number of Republicans who have crossed the president have paid the price for doing so. Yet there were many Republicans in South Carolina who did not like that Sanford lost to Arrington in the primary. Most voted for Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton for president, but that doesn’t necessarily they’re dyed-in-the-wool MAGA acolytes, eager for the Trumpiest candidate in any race.
I heard some dissatisfaction back home over Arrington’s win from more libertarian and fiscally oriented—and younger—conservatives, a not-so-small factor. This was mostly glossed over by media coverage of the race. These Republicans were more turned off by the cult of personality around Trump than drawn to it. Many simply decided not to support Arrington on Tuesday, instead abstaining or voting Democrat. Obviously enough registered Republicans went that way to give Cunningham the win.
What could this mean for the next election? If I were talking about a Republican-leaning district in a blue state, or even in a purple state like Pennsylvania, this kind of scenario would probably be less surprising. But that there were enough disaffected Republicans in deep red South Carolina to hand this longstanding GOP district to a Democrat should make one wonder what 2020 holds for Donald Trump himself.
In fact, as I let my South Carolina friends know on election night, Mark Sanford would have almost certainly won on Tuesday.
A similar dynamic could also be seen in the Virginia U.S. Senate race. Self-styled Trump Republican Corey Stewart was completely trounced by Democrat Tim Kaine. Stewart’s primary opponent, Nick Freitas, is a state representative and libertarian Republican similar to Sanford. Freitas was surprisingly competitive given his lack of name recognition, losing to Stewart by only two points. Freitas won the backing of prominent Republicans and conservative voices due in large part to their belief that he would be significantly more competitive against Kaine.
Stewart attacked Freitas for not being sufficiently pro-Trump, similar to Arrington’s attacks on Sanford. In the end, enough Virginia GOP voters decided they wanted the most Trump-like candidate.
And then Stewart lost worse than any Virginia Republican in recent memory.
The Trump phenomenon has unquestionably revolutionized the GOP and America’s political scene. But its adherents shouldn’t make the mistake of believing that Trump and Trump alone will dictate the future of U.S. politics, or even the future of the Republican Party.
In her concession speech, Arrington said, “We lost because Mark Sanford could not understand this was about the conservative movement, and not him.”
By her own admission time and again during the campaign, Arrington’s definition of “the conservative movement” was merely blind loyalty to Trump. Sanford’s conservative vision, on the other hand, meant sticking to the same fiscally responsible, civil libertarian, and non-interventionist foreign policy views he had held since being elected to Congress in the mid-‘90s where he and Ron Paul were often alone in voting no.
That conservative brand, in the House of Representatives and the South Carolina Statehouse, served Sanford well for most of his political career. It’s hard to see how sticking it to those principles, come hell or high water under both Democratic and Republican presidents—including Donald Trump—was somehow a betrayal of conservatism.
Sanford’s main sin in this election was not doing enough to campaign in the primary. The same Republicans back home that lamented Sanford’s loss also told me they didn’t see any campaign signs or indication that he’d tried to keep his seat against his challenger. That’s on him.
But only one candidate in this race tried to make the election about one man, and it wasn’t Mark Sanford. In doing so, Katie Arrington blew it Tuesday night.
Donald Trump taught America an eye-opening lesson in 2016 about what elites think they can accomplish and control versus what voters actually want.
Heading into 2020, Trump Republicans at all levels shouldn’t make the potentially fatal mistake of believing they know what a majority of voters want based just on what happened in 2016.