When then-Gov. Mark Sanford admitted in 2009 to carrying on an extramarital affair under the guise of hiking the “Appalachian Trail,” the South Carolina Republican escaped with a censure, and remained popular enough to win back his old congressional seat a few years later. But in 2018, he couldn’t survive Donald Trump.
Sanford, now a congressional incumbent, lost the GOP primary in the state’s 1st District on Tuesday. With nearly all precincts reporting, Sanford trailed state lawmaker Katie Arrington by a little more than 4 points, 50.6 percent to 46.5 percent.* A candidate needed a majority of the vote to avoid a runoff and win the nomination outright.
Arrington entered the race as a long shot but found success attacking Sanford for his vocal criticism of Trump, effectively turning the primary into a referendum on the Republican president. Trump gave Arrington a late push with an endorsement on Twitter—though it came with only hours left until the polls closed.
Sanford had previously never lost an election—a notable fear for a politician who, as governor, traveled to Argentina for an extramarital affair that he infamously attempted to cover up by claiming he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. (Arrington, like Trump, made sure voters didn’t forget that.) Despite the fallout from the affair, Sanford finished out his second term as governor and remained relatively popular in South Carolina. Voters elected him to Congress via a 2013 special election, gave him a full term the following year, and then another in 2016.
Sanford becomes the second GOP congressman to be defeated in a primary this year, joining Rep. Robert Pittenger, who lost to pastor Mark Harris in North Carolina last month. But in that race, both candidates sparred over who was the bigger fan of Trump, and the president didn’t pick sides.
Sanford’s race is the clearest example yet of how a lack of loyalty to Trump can prove costly in a Republican primary. In Alabama, Rep. Martha Roby failed to secure her nomination outright last week, two years after she withdrew her endorsement of Trump during the campaign following the release of the Access Hollywood tape. Roby has since re-embraced Trump, but her primary challengers nonetheless used her comments against her and she’ll now need to survive a runoff. Similarly, in Virginia on Tuesday, GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock had a closer-than-expected race against her own conservative challenger, who accused her of being a “Never Trumper” for previously calling Trump’s boasts about sexual assault “vile” and “disgusting.”
The attack doesn’t always stick. In a different Virginia district, GOP Rep. Scott Taylor coasted to the nomination by roughly 50 points despite criticism from his primary challenger that he was insufficiently supportive of Trump (although Taylor’s massive cash advantage helped mute those attacks). And in South Carolina’s gubernatorial race, Gov. Henry McMaster, an early Trump supporter, failed to avoid a runoff, despite the president’s help.
But Sanford’s willingness to publicly criticize Trump made him more vulnerable than most GOP incumbents to attacks from the right. During the 2016 campaign, Sanford took issue with Trump flubbing the basics of the U.S. Constitution, suggested he should “just shut up” instead of responding to every attack, and wrote a New York Times op-ed calling on him to release his tax returns. The congressman then kept at it after Trump was sworn in, calling the president’s tariffs on steel and aluminum “an experiment with stupidity” and his “shithole” remarks about Haiti and African nations “something stupid,” and more broadly suggesting the president had “fanned the flames of intolerance.”
All of that provided plenty of grist for Arrington. One of her ads used cable-news clips of Sanford talking about Trump to brand him a “#NeverTrumper,” and another declared: “It’s time for a conservative who will work with President Trump, not against him.” A third not-so-subtly revisited Sanford’s affair: “Mark Sanford and the career politicians cheated on us. We sent him to do a job, but he left his post and set off down a long trail towards obstructionism.”
Sanford tried to mitigate the damage during the primary, tacking back toward Trump late in the race. In an eleventh-hour ad blitz—a rarity for the notoriously frugal candidate—Sanford told voters that he’d voted with the president “overwhelmingly” and voiced support for Trump’s beloved wall.
In the end, though, that wasn’t enough to appease the GOP base. In a lengthy interview during the early days of Trump’s presidency, Sanford appeared to realize the risk he was taking. “I’m a dead man walking,” he told Politico at the time. “If you’ve already been dead, you don’t fear it as much. I’ve been dead politically.”
Correction, June 13, 2018: An earlier version of this post misstated Arrington’s first name. It is Katie, not Kate.