Poll volunteer Tom Spain hands an “I voted” sticker to Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) after he voted in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., in the June 2018 primary. (Grace Beahm Alford/The Post And Courier via AP)
Opinion writer

Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), a rock-ribbed Republican, lost his primary to a cheerleader for President Trump. A Democrat, Joe Cunningham, then beat the Republican and flipped the seat in a major upset. Sanford writes: “In fact, there was not a more conservative district in the country to flip to the Democrats. For this reason, I think the race offers a chance for conservative soul-searching, and I say this as a committed conservative, who just happens not to be Trump enough in the age of Trump.” Two of his reasons for the GOP loss, however, seem disconnected from the top election issues — Republicans’ lack of concern for the environment and for fiscal responsibility. However, the third reason — Republicans’ incivility — seems to be more on point. (“I heard it from young soccer moms and longtime Republican voters alike. They don’t want to condone behavior that is counter to what they’ve taught their children.”)

Republicans have witnessed so many retirements and losses that there is now a community of experienced former legislators who embody what the GOP is not — civil, thoughtful, oriented to problem-solving, opposed to the nativist turn in the GOP. They are displaced from a party that is neither conservative nor tethered to reality.

Sanford would do his party, state and country a service by attempting to rekindle these qualities in the GOP. He can start by primarying Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who has decided to embrace Trump with a fervor that stuns colleagues and friends of his former ally, the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.). Not only did Graham vote for a budget-busting tax bill, but he’s also become an all-purpose apologist for Trump’s lawlessness (e.g., illegally putting an unfit acting attorney general in charge of the Russia probe, undermining the credibility of elections, smearing the FBI). Sanford has the unique ability to primary him from the right while bashing him for enabling Trump.

In a similar vein, Republicans dismayed with the direction of the party should look at states where the GOP lost House seats and have a Senate race in 2020 (e.g., Iowa and Texas). It is in these states that they can fight Trump loyalists for the direction of their party. Much attention has been focused on mounting a primary (or third-party challenge) against Trump, but equally if not more important is to challenge those Senate Republicans who have become Trump enablers, refused to do rudimentary oversight, piled on as Trump has savaged democratic norms and values, and chosen to defend Trump’s policy objectives (e.g., tariffs) over the economic and other interests of their home-state constituents.

One place to start would be the appointment of acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker. The about-to-be-out-of-work Republicans would be wise to join with Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who presented a two-part proposal for responding to Whitaker:

First, we are demanding that Mr. Whitaker recuse himself from the Russia investigation. On Sunday, I sent a letter along with Leader Pelosi, and top Democrats from both houses and the relevant committees, to the Department of Justice’s Chief Ethics Officer explaining why Mr. Whitaker should be recused and requesting the Chief Ethics Officer notify Congress as to what guidance Whitaker has given. We’ve heard that Mr. Whitaker is meeting with Ethics officials this week, and we expect, we expect, that Congress will be notified about the results of those discussions.

Second, if Mr. Whitaker does not recuse himself, we Democrats are going to attempt to add legislation to the must-pass spending bill in the lame duck session that will prevent acting Attorney General Whitaker from interfering with the Mueller investigation in any way.

And these jobless, anti-Trump Republicans shouldn’t wait until 2020 to start holding fellow Republican accountable for their votes and rhetoric. Household-name Republicans should join in the fights now to protect special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, respect the sanctity of elections, challenge abuse of the pardon power and otherwise check the authoritarian tendencies of their party. They might succeed in changing the behavior of previously Trump-subservient Republicans. If not, they’ll have softened incumbents up for a possible primary challenge in 2020.

Read more:

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