In more than two decades of politics and in spite of one of the great sex scandals in political history, Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) had never lost an election — until Tuesday.
The congressman, former governor and one-time presidential aspirant was toppled by a little-known state lawmaker who slammed him for his repeated criticism of President Trump, the latest sign that the most dangerous thing to do in the modern GOP is dare to take on the president.
South Carolina state Rep. Katie Arrington (R) led Sanford by 51 percent to 47 percent with 99 percent of precincts reporting when the Associated Press officially called the race shortly after midnight EST Wednesday morning.
“Based on the numbers I see, I think I’ll end up losing this election,” Sanford told supporters Tuesday night, before the race was officially called.
The results come after Arrington repeatedly attacked Sanford for opposing Trump. The iconoclastic congressman, a fiscally conservative purist and member of the House Freedom Caucus, had mocked Trump for his lack of a grasp of the U.S. Constitution late in the GOP primary and demanded late in the presidential race that Trump release his tax returns. He was one of the few Republicans to keep criticizing Trump after he became president, though he’d toned that down significantly as his reelection fight loomed.
Those apostasies came back to haunt Sanford, even though Arrington was also a vocal Trump critic during the 2016 GOP primary.
Trump made a last-minute endorsement against Sanford on Tuesday, the first time he’s endorsed against a sitting House member. While that tweet likely didn’t do much by itself, as it came just three hours before polls closed and after many had already voted, it’s clear that the man who made it through “hiking the Appalachian Trail” had finally been undone because he took on his party’s president.
Sanford’s loss makes him the latest Republican to be forced from office for his lack of fealty to Trump. Sens. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Bob Corker (R-TN) are also heading for the exits largely because GOP base voters abandoned them after their criticisms of the president, and Rep. Martha Roby (R-AL) was just forced into a primary runoff last week because she refused to back him in 2016. On the flip side, Trump acolytes continue to win primaries — including Corey Stewart, an anti-immigration hardliner and Confederate monuments defender who won his primary to face Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) Tuesday night.
Sanford recognized his primary danger and fought hard to beat back his challenger, spending heavily on TV ads highlighting the areas where he agreed with Trump. But the famously frugal congressman only matched her roughly $400,000 on campaign spending, and ends his time in office with roughly $1.5 million in his campaign coffers that could have been put to use to save himself.
This isn’t Sanford’s first political setback.
He had been a rising star in the GOP in 2009 with an eye on the White House when his aides told reporters he was missing because he was hiking the Appalachian Trail — only for him to get caught instead returning from Argentina, where he had been visiting his mistress.
That scandal forced him to resign from office and ended his presidential aspirations. But he made a miraculous comeback in 2013, winning an open House seat anchored in his hometown of Charleston even after the national GOP abandoned him in that race after his ex-wife accused him of repeatedly trespassing at her home.
Sanford had faced primary challenges since, but seemed relatively secure in his seat. But after overcoming all his other problems, he couldn’t survive Trump.
Sanford’s seat is the second-least Republican in the state — Trump won it by 13 points — and Democrats see an outside chance at competing there this fall. They nominated engineer and attorney Joe Cunningham for the race on Tuesday.
This post was updated at 12:15 a.m. EST.