Beyond the obstacles posed by President Donald Trump and his loyal GOP establishment, Republican Mark Sanford’s upstart presidential campaign already has a glaring problem, experts say.
The former South Carolina governor and congressman is banking on his own intuition to secure victories in primary states where he is eligible to compete, staffing his operation with a “band of volunteers” with no expertise in his political history or experience running national campaigns.
Further, Sanford says at this point he has no urgency to hire more seasoned political veterans to guide him. He might even be constitutionally opposed to that sort of guidance, describing himself as “rather unadvisable on that front.
“I like dealing with people I’ve dealt with for a while,” he told The State of the volunteers he’s been working with for a little over a month, from the time he announced he might challenge President Donald Trump in the GOP primary to his formal campaign launch on Sunday. “The idea of new hired guns that I’ve never dealt with or don’t know is not really my cup of tea.”
While this decision could be viewed as eccentric and help add buzz around an already unconventional campaign, it could also undermine Sanford’s credibility on the national stage.
“It would call into question the seriousness of his bid,” said Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball — a prominent national political forecasting newsletter run out of the University of Virginia.
It could hurt Sanford’s chances of running a successful race — if not one designed to win the presidency, then at the very least one to force a national debate on the rising federal debt, which is the reason Sanford said he wanted to primary Trump in the first place.
“It’s one thing to run within a single state or congressional district,” said Gibbs Knotts a political scientist at the College of Charleston who has co-written a forthcoming book on the S.C. presidential primary. “But he’s going to places where he’s starting from almost Ground Zero.”
Scott English, a former longtime Sanford aide who is now the executive director of the American Philatelic Society, put it bluntly: “He’s winging it right now.”
An old playbook?
Most insurgent political candidates would explain away a skeletal staff by acknowledging it isn’t ideal. They would point out the country’s top political operatives don’t want to alienate an entrenched incumbent and that fundraising challenges make it difficult to afford the best people.
Not Sanford. He insists he is running his presidential campaign the way he has run his other successful congressional and gubernatorial campaigns — those campaigns, too, faced similar skepticism from critics who felt he should adhere to the status quo.
“My first run for Congress (in 1993), I went to my former wife,” Sanford said of Jenny Sanford, whom he divorced after revelations of the extramarital affair that prompted his now-infamous disappearance from the governor’s mansion in 2009. “We ran a phone line in our kitchen and then moved into the basement.
“When we went to the gubernatorial level (in 2001), everyone said, ‘No, no, no, you gotta bring in professionals to run this,’ ” he continued, “and I said, ‘No, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. I’m sticking with Jenny.’ ”
Jenny Sanford did stay on as campaign manager for both gubernatorial races. And those who have worked for, or closely observed, Mark Sanford over the years say there are key characteristics across all his winning campaigns they see playing out now, too.
They say Sanford is notoriously frugal and tends to fill the lower ranks of his operations with volunteers who are willing to work hard for the sake of the experience. Those he ends up hiring and installing in senior positions are those who were able to prove they truly believe in Sanford and his mission — not just those who are looking for a paycheck.
He also is always looking to surround himself with people he truly trusts.
“He can’t accept the idea that people are just showing up to fight the good fight without putting in their pound of flesh first,” said English.
English and others also say it’s disingenuous for Sanford to suggest he never hired professionals to work for him.
Jon Lerner, an established Republican political operative who is now Nikki Haley’s top consultant and consigliere, served as a strategist and pollster during both of Sanford’s gubernatorial campaigns.
Jason Miller, who would go on to become a Trump spokesman before having to step down for soliciting prostitutes, in 2006 left a U.S. Senate campaign in Virginia to help run Sanford’s reelection race. English was also on the payroll in senior staff capacities.
“Gov. Sanford in 2006 was a popular governor who had a serious team of professionals,” noted Rob Godfrey, a former Haley spokesman who came to South Carolina that year to work on a U.S. House campaign. “As a candidate for reelection, he was someone who people from across the country wanted to come and work for.”
In 2013, when Sanford decided to launch a political comeback by running in a special election for his old congressional seat in the 1st District, he hired new people, like Jon Kohan, now of Jamestown Associates. He also brought back veterans of past campaigns like Miller and Joel Sawyer, who was a gubernatorial press aide.
Sanford insisted all these players were brought into his fold “over time,” not on impulse because they had impressive resumes.
“There was only Jason because Jason was Jon Lerner’s sidekick and he was two years in the apprenticeship mode and he earned a spot on the playing field, and then he’s the one who brought Jon Kohan in, and Jon developed my trust,” Sanford explained.
Historically, however, it’s when Sanford has run campaigns without trusted advisers and experienced operators that he has run into trouble.
In 2016, he only retained a small handful of staffers and barely spent money on campaign activities. He only won his primary 56-44 — an alarmingly narrow margin for an incumbent.
And though the narrative around his 2018 primary defeat is that Trump endorsed his challenger in an 11th hour tweet, the truth is Sanford has barely campaigned leading up to that point, only spending cash in the final months of the race and, again, keeping only a few campaign staffers on the payroll.
He left Congress in January with more than $1 million in in his war chest he can now use for his presidential bid.
A similar scenario is playing out now, where Sanford is running for an office more ambitious than any he has ever sought before, without people around him who know him well and aren’t afraid to challenge him.
“People can either facilitate what (Sanford) can do or enable what he can’t. That is what happened in 2016 and 2018,” said English. “More than anything else, if there’s not a lightning rod to push him, press him hard ... they will enable his worse instincts.”
‘Not gonna win’
Ultimately, it could be that Sanford isn’t looking to do anything more this time around than talk about the national debt through earned media, using a presidential bid as the vehicle to force people to listen to him.
This is, after all, a realization of the dream he had prior to his 2009 scandal — to run for president and campaign on a platform of fiscal sanity.
“The stuff he’s out there saying about the debt, deficit, the economy, what it means to be a Republican, all that stuff — he genuinely believes that stuff, probably more so than a lot of the people out there in the political sphere,” said Sawyer. “But he’s basically said he’s not gonna win ... so from that standpoint, it’s, ‘How much attention can I generate, how much dust can I kick up with the minimum resources possible?’ ”
Still, if Sanford wants to show his message has resonance, he’ll want to perform as well as he can in primaries and caucuses.
He’ll need to make sure he qualifies for inclusion in the contests hosted by states where Republican Parties have not already canceled their presidential preference elections in deference to Trump. That effort will require advance planning and organizers on the ground. Figuring out which states might be most sympathetic to Sanford’s message will be key.
In the meantime, Sanford isn’t shifting his strategy.
“I believe in ideas,” he said, “and ideas have always accounted for the growth and development of my campaigns.”