Freshman State Rep. Katie Arrington stunned incumbent Rep. Mark Sanford in South Carolina's Republican primary Tuesday night, powered by a strong last-minute endorsement from President Donald Trump.
Sanford, a former governor and political fixture for a quarter century who never lost an election, told Associated Press late Tuesday, "Based on the numbers I see, I think I'll end up losing this election."
Though the race had not been officially called by AP or major networks, Arrington was maintaining a 51 to 46 percent lead with 86 percent of precincts reporting. They could meet again in a runoff if neither tops 50 percent.
But the message from voters was clear.
"It says the Trump factor matters here," Kendra Stewart, a College of Charleston political science professor, said Tuesday night. "In South Carolina, it's very unusual for an incumbent to lose a seat...Almost more so than anywhere else, South Carolina likes to elect the known quantity, the person with the most name recognition. Going into this race, that was Mark Sanford."
Sanford's defeat also ends, at least for now, the political saga of a former governor who overcame personal scandal to reclaim a House seat he had given up years before.
The race became a referendum on Trump’s popularity — a firestorm stoked by Trump himself — particularly in the final hours of the race in the lowcountry district.
As voters went to the polls Tuesday, Trump took the extraordinary step of tweeting with advice to defeat an incumbent congressman from his own party. For Trump, it was payback for Sanford's often blunt criticism of his policies and rhetoric.
"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," the president tweeted.
"I fully endorse Katie Arrington for Congress in SC, a state I love. She is tough on crime and will continue our fight to lower taxes. VOTE Katie!"
Sanford told aides in 2009 that he was away “hiking the Appalachian Trail” when he was actually in Argentina visiting Maria Belen Chapur, a television reporter who he would later call his "soul mate."
Sanford’s marriage ended but his political career didn't.
He was elected to the House again in 2013, and was a popular figure among colleagues. Tuesday, Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, had a stern answer to Trump's tweet.
"He's one of the most principled, consistent and conservative members of Congress I've ever known," tweeted Amash, one of the House's most outspoken conservatives. "And unlike you, Mark has shown humility in his role and a desire to be a better man than he was the day before."
Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said "I support Mark Sanford" before heading into an immigration meeting with House Republican leadership on Capitol Hill Tuesday afternoon.
By Tuesday night, Meadows was lamenting Sanford's fate. He hesitated to blame it on Trump.
"The people of South Carolina have spoken tonight," he said. "I think a tweet at the eleventh hour is not going to decide a race one way or another."
Arrington made Sanford’s disagreements with Trump a cornerstone of her campaign. She branded Sanford as a “Never Trump” Republican in name only who almost reflexively disagrees with the president.
“If Mark had gotten behind the president, the Affordable Care Act would be where it is today,” Arrington told McClatchy in January. “They (voters) see that very clearly and they want change…Absolutely, the surge for pro-Trumpness is growing and continues to get better every day.”
Tuesday’s primary in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District presented Sanford with his toughest election challenge since his return to Congress in 2013. He first served in the House of Representatives from 1995 to 2001..
Sanford acknowledged he has had strong disagreements with Trump, he’s also supporting the president on issues ranging from tax cuts to building a wall along the Mexican border.
“I’ve agreed with the president on some issues, actually most issues…,” he said. “But there are some issues I’ve disagreed. Healthy discord and dissent is part and parcel to the American political system.”
A recent poll found that Sanford and Arrington were in a statistical tie just before the primary.
The race's tightness prompted Sanford to uncharacteristically spend a lot of money on his campaign. He dipped into his formidable campaign war chest — he had $1.6 million in cash on hand as of last month — to spend more than $380,000 on the primary.
Governor from 2003 to 2011, Sanford has been a political survivor, having never lost a race. He completed his second term in Columbia after he admitted to an extramarital affair that took him out of the country.
Despite the scandal, Sanford won a special election in 2013 to fill the House seat vacated by Tim Scott, who was appointed by then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to replace Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, who left office to run the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Emma Dumain of McClatchy's Washington Bureau contributed.