Politics & Government

Donald Trump dances on his political grave, but is Mark Sanford politically dead?

Sanford: Trump’s ‘shithole’ comment makes Reconstruction Era monument more important

Sanford says Trumps ‘shithole’ comment makes Reconstruction Era monument more important
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Sanford says Trumps ‘shithole’ comment makes Reconstruction Era monument more important

U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford said he's been swamped by well-wishers after losing to political newcomer Katie Arrington in the June 12 GOP primary.

"I said to one of the boys, it's kind of interesting, you get the eulogy without the dying part," said the 58-year-old veteran of five terms in Congress sandwiched around two terms as South Carolina's governor.

Sanford also was left for dead in 2009 after his infamous trip on the "Appalachian Trail" turned out to be an affair in Argentina.

He said he was a dead man walking after First District voters surprisingly sent him to Congress in 2013. And now Sanford has died again.

In Washington, President Donald Trump spent the week dancing on Sanford's political grave, mocking his campaign, calling him a "nasty guy" and gloating about it again the next day.

In Columbia, longtime politicians talked about Sanford in the past tense, saying he misread the tea leaves in a Politico story headlined: "Sanford’s fatal sin: Crossing Donald Trump."

But back in sweltering Beaufort County — which Sanford said is "where I grew up, it's where I will die, it's where I will be buried, it's home" — the man who knows Sanford best is saying to hold off on the obituary.

"After the defeat, he did not slink away," said state Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort. "He's not hiding and he's not ashamed. People can say he spoke truth to power. What that tells me is he's not done with politics. When things change, he'll come back."

This weekend, Davis and other close friends will join Sanford and his four sons at "the farm," the family's 1,400-acre Coosaw Plantation along the Coosaw River in northern Beaufort County.

At a cookout, Davis plans to get the ear of his former college roommate — and the governor he served as chief of staff and the guy he dropped everything for to move into his basement to help engineer Sanford's 2002 upset of an incumbent governor.

"You love working on the farm," Davis will say. "Do that for a few months. Get your batteries recharged and come back strong."

Different campaign

Credit Arrington, a first-term state representative, with working hard to win.

That's the first thing that must be said about Sanford's loss, Davis said.

And on Saturday morning, after it was reported that Arrington was serioiusly injured Friday night in a wreck, Sanford tweeted:

"Our thoughts and prayers this morning go to Katie Arrington, her family and those involved in last night’s automobile accident."

Sanford said his campaign was different this time because he had a busy day job that kept him in Washington.

But still, where was the energy of the guy who spray-painted "Sanford Saves Tax $$" on scrap pieces of plywood and spread them across the Lowcountry in 2013?

"He seemed to me to be fatigued," Davis said.

And as much as Sanford clings to Beaufort County as a special refuge, he did not poll well here.

"I've looked at the precincts," he said. "It's people who are new to South Carolina. They don't know my time in Congress before (1994-2000). They don't know my time as governor (2002-2010). All they know is that they're a Trump supporter and they see an ad that has reruns of things I have said, one second here and one second there, not in context, that don't sound positive with regard to my reaction to the president."

Sanford said he voted with the president 89 percent of the time.

But, he asked, how could he support offshore drilling when virtually every local leader in his district opposes it? And no one would expect him to support a budget bill that "spends more than the country can afford." He said it was not a vote against Trump, but rather a vote for common sense.

But Arrington succeeded in painting Sanford as an anti-Trump obstructionist.

"The political environment today is as tribal as I've ever seen it," Sanford said. "And so, what would happen is, you'd go on television and rather than talking about ideas, you'd be responding to the president's latest tweet. And nobody runs for the U.S. Congress to simply be responding to a crazy tweet. But that's oftentimes where you find yourself.

"I've run a lot of different races over the years and I applied the same formula that I have on the others, but on this one, it didn't fit with where the political marketplace is right now. So, I'd say, yeah, I'm a competitive guy and I'd much rather win than lose, but you've got to do it within the confines of who you are as a person, and what you stand for."

The tea leaves

Sanford said his challenges to Trump were never personal.

"Oddly, he saw my comments on not releasing his tax returns in very personal terms," Sanford said. "Maybe because tax returns are personal, but in no way was it personal on my part. My point was that it's a tradition that has served our country well for 50 years. And as soon as the president holds them back, gubernatorial candidates will follow, which we're already seeing in our own state."

Davis said Sanford's pushback against Trump was calculated. It burned him in the short term, but it may work well for him later, he said.

For his part, Sanford said, "I didn't miss any tea leaves. I had to speak up despite what the tea leaves said."

Few in Congress have taken that route.

He takes strong exception to Arrington's statement that the GOP is the "party of Donald J. Trump."

"There was real legitimacy with the Trump phenomenon," Sanford said. "People were so weary of the way in which government was working for themselves and those who they love that they wanted to see a change. But in our effort to push for legitimate change, let's not trample upon some traditions and institutions that have served our country incredibly well for 200 years.

"One of those is this notion that we can agree to disagree. That is the American way. And in so many other more restrictive political climates and regimes, that's not what you can do. In China, you can go make a bunch of money, but you cannot show political dissent. That's the no-fly zone."

Sanford said it's a challenge much bigger than what goes on in the 1st Congressional District.

"It goes to the heart of the construct of the Founding Fathers, which was designed for great dissent and debate. The legislative, executive and judicial branch, each is to be a check upon the other, each is to argue their points of view, because the Founders believed in the notion that absolute power becomes absolute corruption. They cared more about the amalgamation and the concentration of power than they did about efficiency. If they wanted efficiency, they would have just told the president, you make the call and we'll go with it. But they said, no, no, no … we want to divide power. It will create dissent, it will create division, it will create debate, but that's what we want."

Sanford said he does not know what lies ahead in his professional or personal life. His marriage ended in divorce, and Jenny Sanford has since remarried. His youngest child just finished his freshman year at Georgetown University. His mother, Peggy, died a year ago.

"You never say never in the world of politics," Sanford said. "I will say that at this point, my sense is that this is it for me, just because it is an inflection point in American politics."

He said: "I'm at peace."

But his friend Tom Davis said, "He wants to make public policy, whether it is a think tank or whatever it is. But my instinct is that Mark is a political animal.

"His themes play well for our area: cutting the deficit and the growth of entitlements, preserving the quality of life. He's articulating things that matter to people. I hope he recharges and comes back. He's only 58. He's got another 15 years in him."

David Lauderdale: 843-706-8115, @ThatsLauderdale
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