Disgraced former governor Mark Sanford’s victory in the South Carolina Republican congressional primary this week puts social conservatives in an odd spot.
Not only does Sanford’s past behavior fly in the face of “traditional values,” but he has apparently abandoned his support for the Defense of Marriage Act. In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on Wednesday, he stated, “I think that if you’re a conservative, you believe in this notion of federalism, that one size does not fit all and that we shouldn’t have prescriptive answers coming out of Washington, D.C., for any of the different things ultimately that we have got to resolve as a family of Americans.”
Given all that social conservatives are facing, this is another indication that social conservatives’ political influence is shriveling. The Sanford victory suggests one of two unpalatable conclusions about one of the most conservative states in the country: Either the base (die-hard voters who turn out in an off -year primary election) is no longer dominated by social conservatives or social conservatives don’t embrace the concerns of social conservative leaders.
In the general election it is not clear which result would be more damaging to values-voter leadership: Should Sanford win, the takeaway would be that indifference to or even openly flouting traditional values is no barrier to success, even in a state such as South Carolina. If Sanford loses, Republicans will lose a seat to a pro-choice, pro-gay-rights Democrat, in large part because social conservatives couldn’t oust or actually embraced a deeply flawed candidate.
The result is bad news for former presidential candidate Rick Santorum on two levels. First, his support for Sanford’s opponent, Curtis Bostic, made no difference to the outcome, leading to the conclusion that he is no kingmaker. Second, as perhaps the only 2016 presidential wanna-be whose identity is defined by social issues, he faces the realization that he’s no longer in sync with the GOP base.
Social conservative leaders have threatened to bolt the GOP if it dumps support for “traditional values.” But in their support for Sanford and a raft of polling on same-sex marriage, it seems GOP voters, not “establishment elites,” already have demonstrated that their embrace of traditional values is perfunctory at best (especially Republicans under the age of 50).
For social conservative leadership, 2013 could prove to be a nightmarish trifecta. A loss at the Supreme Court on gay marriage, the Sanford debacle and the potential that vociferous social conservative Ken Cuccinelli may lose the Virginia gubernatorial race precisely because of his extreme views on social issues (he went after state colleges for attempting to prevent discrimination against gays ) would suggest that they lack political muscle and relevance.