Mark Sanford debates cardboard Trump in SC. ‘Let’s not make this the only one.’

On a campaign tour across the state Monday, former S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford stopped at the State House with a cardboard cutout of President Donald Trump.

With his chief 2020 opponent to his left and a $1 trillion dollar check made out to the “Burden of Future Generations” on his right, the Mount Pleasant Republican called for the S.C. Republican Party to reconsider its decision not to hold a presidential primary.

On Sept. 7 — the day before Sanford announced his bid — the S.C. GOP voted against having a primary, blocking Sanford from a chance to woo Republican voters in his home state. The party sited elections in 1984, 1996, 2004 and 2012 as examples of years when a sitting president was running for reelection and no primary was held, but a political scientist has called it “a false equivalency” — noting that incumbents did not face serious challengers those years.

“The question here is, ‘Why is there no debate?’ Let’s not make this the only one between me and Donald (Trump),” Sanford said Monday at the State House. “ There is something fundamentally wrong with the Republican Party primary process being shut down in South Carolina.”

Debating cardboard Trump — something that isn’t an unusual campaign tactic for the Palmetto State Republican — is part of Sanford’s first formal step in challenging the South Carolina GOP’s decision not to hold a primary in 2020, the former S.C. congressman and two-term governor said.

“There’s some countries that have coronation. In some countries, tragically, they have military coups. In some countries they have fixed or rigged elections,” Sanford said. “We have debates and elections in the United States of America. We need one here in South Carolina.”

On Friday, Sanford co-wrote a letter with his fellow Trump challengers calling for parties in South Carolina, Arizona, Kansas and Nevada to reinstate their primaries. The letter was published in The Washington Post.

The letter referenced “legal challenges to the cancellations” that will likely crop up due to the decisions. Later Friday, Sanford did not rule out taking legal action to make sure he appeared on ballots across the United States.

Monday, Sanford said he had not yet made any legal moves against the South Carolina GOP, and his first step was to ask voters across the state to reach out to the party and demand a primary.

“We do need to have a debate, and we’re going to look for any and all tools in the tool kit to try and raise that issue,” Sanford said.

If states across the country follow South Carolina’s lead and cancel their Republican primaries, it will stifle debate ahead of the election and not allow Republicans to provide responses to initiatives proposed by Democratic candidates, Sanford said.

Debates, he added, also would allow voters to consider what it means to be a Republican post-Trump’s inauguration.

“Around the kitchen counter, people will say ‘You know what, what does it mean to be Republican?’” Sanford said.

“Do we stand for the kinds of debts that are rolling out now? Is that what the Republican party stands for? Do we stand for the tariffs, which are backroom tax increases, that are now being contemplated? Do we stand for some of the breakdown of institutions? Do we stand for some of the tone that the president has laid out? Are those the things that describe what it means to be a Republican these days? That is a worthy debate.”

Though it’s extremely unlikely the S.C. GOP will reverse course and allow Trump’s opponents to challenge him on the ballot, there are other ways Sanford could get his name on the 2020 ballot. Sanford could secure the nomination from another certified political party that is recognized by South Carolina or he could submit a petition with 10,000 signatures of registered S.C. voters.

One of those recognized parties is the Libertarian Party, which champions shrinking the size of government, including the national debt — one of Sanford’s hallmark campaign issues so far this election.

Sanford said several people have suggested a party change to him, but doubled down on sticking with the Republican Party Monday.

“Make no mistake, I’ve put a lot of time and energy into the Republican Party,” Sanford said, listing his terms in office and former potion as head of the Republican Governor’s Association. “I think, again, we need to have a debate about what it means to be a Republican.”

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Emily Bohatch helps cover South Carolina’s government for The State. She also updates The State’s databases. Her accomplishments include winning a Green Eyeshade award in Disaster Reporting in 2018 for her teamwork reporting on Hurricane Irma. She has a degree in Journalism with a minor in Spanish from Ohio University’s E. W. Scripps School of Journalism.