Former South Carolina governor and congressman Mark Sanford is exploring another walk down the political trail, telling reporters Tuesday he was considering a primary challenge to President Trump. Sanford’s long-standing principled devotion to small-government conservatism instantly gives him credibility other potential challengers have lacked. But that doesn’t mean he has a prayer of winning.
Sanford has his own personal peculiarities to live down. He had at one point been touted as a possible serious presidential contender himself. With the emergence of the tea party in 2009, an uncompromised Sanford could have been a strong contender. But his well-publicized affair with an Argentine woman in 2009 — revealed while he was pretending to be hiking the Appalachian Trail — forced him to leave the governorship in shame.
He returned to public life in 2012 after a divorce, recapturing in 2013 his old Charleston-based House seat. Sanford continued to tout his neo-libertarian beliefs as they were increasingly discarded and ignored by Trump and the vast majority of his colleagues, sometimes opposing the president himself. But his constituents did not appreciate his candor, and he lost renomination to a Trumpier Republican challenger, state Rep. Katie Arrington in 2018.
Many anti-Trump Republicans will gravitate to Sanford because they share his objections — personal and policy-wise — to the president. Now that Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.), another small-government Trump critic, has abandoned the GOP, Sanford is probably the most serious challenger the party can hope to recruit. If small-government conservatism were a potent force within the GOP, Sanford could pose a significant challenge even if he fell short.
But in truth, there is no such force. As my co-author, University of New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala, showed in our 2015 book “The Four Faces of the Republican Party,” serious small-government conservatives were the smallest of the party’s four factions before Trump’s emergence. Moreover, these voters have prioritized tax cuts over spending cuts since at least the 1996 GOP presidential primaries, when tax-cut enthusiast Steve Forbes decisively defeated then-Sen. Phil Gramm (Tex.), who pushed for spending cuts (though both eventually lost the nomination to Bob Dole). Trump has since issued his own tax cuts, so only the hardest of the hardcore anti-spending conservatives would gravitate to Sanford on policy grounds.
Politics makes strange bedfellows, so Sanford will also likely pick up backing from the part of the GOP that really hates Trump: educated moderates. That group is a bit larger than disgruntled neo-libertarians, but it still amounts to little more than a tenth of the party’s voters nationwide. These voters will also have a difficult decision to make in the early New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries. South Carolina has no partisan registration and New Hampshire independents can vote in either party‘s primaries, giving most moderates the option to participate in the Democratic primary. Many would likely prefer to influence the Democratic choice, adding to that party’s moderate wing, then cast a quixotic protest vote on behalf of a man they know will get trounced by the president.
Sanford should do much better than Trump’s current GOP challenger, former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld. Weld has a well-earned reputation as a gadfly and is clearly in the party’s moderate wing. It would not be surprising to see Sanford receive 20 or 25 percent of the primary vote in New Hampshire and South Carolina. But that doesn’t signify trouble for Trump in November. In 1972, Richard Nixon won the New Hampshire primary with only 68 percent. He went on to win 49 states and 61 percent of the vote in the general election.
Republican voters will tell Sanford to take a hike if he chooses to run. The only real question is how his disappointed backers regroup after the paucity of their position is made painfully, manifestly clear.