Tuesday’s primary results in deep red South Carolina confirmed what has become conventional wisdom about the 2018 Republican Party: that there’s no such thing as loving Donald Trump too much.
The candidate who loved him best, state Rep. Katie Arrington, defeated incumbent Rep. Mark Sanford, who voted with Trump a mere 89 percent of the time and accused him of incompetence and promoting bigotry.
Arrington’s campaign focused on Sanford’s disagreements with the president, arguing that he didn’t support Trump enough. Late on election day Trump tweeted his support of Arrington, stating that Sanford had been “very unhelpful to me in my campaign to MAGA… He is better off in Argentina” — a reference to the scandal that led to Sanford’s resignation as governor in 2009, when he disappeared for several days to visit his mistress in South America.
Arrington received 50.5 percent of the vote, enough to avoid a runoff and clinch the nomination.
During the 2016 campaign Sanford mocked Trump’s constitutional knowledge and called for the release of his tax returns. He didn’t relent after the election, stating in a February 2017 Politico interview that Trump was unprepared for the presidency and had “fanned the flames of intolerance.” Tim Alberta, the reporter who conducted the interview, said Tuesday that a White House source told him at the time that Trump had read the story containing Sanford’s insults and “would not forget.”
Charleston County Republican Party Chairman Larry Kobrovsky told Yahoo News that he believed Sanford had a ceiling in the district, topping out at 56 percent in two recent primaries, but that Trump was a factor.
“With the Trump effect this time, it would be hard not to say that made a difference,” said Kobrovsky. “Mark was pretty vocal on CNN and MSNBC about President Trump, and Arrington was very vocal about that issue.”
Kobrovsky added that he believed the competitive five-way Republican gubernatorial primary in which each of the candidates strongly supported the president had a spillover into the Sanford/Arrington race.
“Frankly each candidate for governor was competing who was more for Trump, so that had to have an impact in what voters were most turning out,” said Kobrovsky.
Sanford’s political career in South Carolina has been a rollercoaster. After representing the First District in the House of Representatives, he mounted a successful campaign for governor in 2002. His political career nearly ended in 2009 when reporters discovered where he had actually been while his staffers put out the story he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail. Sanford’s time outside office was short, as he won a special election for the seat in 2013, and reelection twice since then.
Although a handful of Republican elder statesmen, including former House Speaker John Boehner, have claimed that Trump doesn’t truly represent the Republican Party, he is historically popular among GOP voters. At the 500-day mark of his presidency, Trump trailed only President George W. Bush in “own party” approval rating at that point in a tenure, with 87 percent of Republicans approving. While Trump’s overall approval rating has been in the low 40s for the past few months, he’s having no trouble among GOP voters.
Sanford is the second anti-Trump Republican incumbent to suffer this month as Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama failed to clear 50 percent in her June 5 primary and was forced into a runoff with challenger Bobby Bright, a former Democrat. In the wake of the “Access Hollywood” video in which Trump bragged about sexual assault, Roby said she wouldn’t vote for Trump and called for him to step aside as the party’s standard-bearer. The reaction among Alabama Republicans was swift: A write-in campaign was organized for a Tea Party candidate and Roby was reelected with just 49 percent of the vote, down from 67 percent in her previous race.
Even before those results, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who has been critical of Trump even while supporting his agenda in Congress, announced he wouldn’t run for reelection in 2018. One month before Flake’s decision a poll was released showing him down 20 points in the Republican primary to challenger Kelli Ward.
Watching their fellow Republicans get punished for failing to fall in line behind Trump, most GOP candidates are tying themselves to the president as tightly as possible, even in states where he’s unpopular. John Cox, the Republican candidate for governor in California, didn’t vote for Trump in 2016, opting for Libertarian Gary Johnson. Neither that fact nor Trump’s negative-21 approval rating in the state has dissuaded Cox from asking the president — who endorsed Cox — to come campaign for him in California. (It remains to be seen how much that will help him in the general election against Democrat Gavin Newsom.) And all the more so in red states like Indiana, where the brutal Senate primary turned into a competition to see who could love Trump the most. One candidate, Rep. Todd Rokita, even went to the extreme of running ads with a fake endorsement by Trump, which the White House asked him to pull.
He finished second.
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