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For Republican candidates, the only issue that matters is loyalty to Trump

HILTON HEAD, SC - MARCH 18: Fred Compton of Sun City, South Carolina, right, expresses concerns about President Donald Trump to Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) during a town hall meeting March 18, 2017 in Hilton Head, South Carolina. Protestors have been showing up in large numbers to congressional town hall meetings across the nation. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
HILTON HEAD, SC - MARCH 18: Fred Compton of Sun City, South Carolina, right, expresses concerns about President Donald Trump to Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) during a town hall meeting March 18, 2017 in Hilton Head, South Carolina. Protestors have been showing up in large numbers to congressional town hall meetings across the nation. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
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CHARLESTON, S.C. — In one of his campaign ads, Republican congressman Mark Sanford says he has overwhelmingly “voted with the president.” In another, he says he has “joined with the president and others in efforts to build the wall.”

The Mark Sanford who asked Donald Trump to release his tax returns and questioned his grasp of the Constitution is harder to find in South Carolina. In the closing days of a close-fought primary, a congressman who had been one of the president’s most eloquent critics is now smoothing out their differences.

“Trying to make the case that Mark Sanford is some obstructionist for Trump is just not accurate,” Sanford said in an interview here, after greeting voters at a street festival. “Have I disagreed with the president? Yes. Have I been straight-up about my disagreements? Yes. That doesn’t make me an obstructionist.”

In South Carolina, and across the country, Republicans who had qualms with the president — some too-public questions about his fiscal conservatism, some exasperation with his gaffes or scandals — have been fighting for their lives in primaries. Prominent Trump critics of the past, such as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, have become cheerleaders for the White House. Republicans who have continued to question the president are confronting a GOP electorate that supports him over politicians they have known for years.

In Alabama, Rep. Martha Roby (R) was forced into a July runoff by voters still angry that she called on Trump to quit the 2016 campaign after the release of a tape that found him bragging about sexual assault. In Arizona and Tennessee, senators who warned that Trump was destabilizing the American-led global order have retired under pressure; more pro-Trump Republicans are likely to replace them on the ballot.

Sanford, a former governor who emerged from scandal and political exile to return to Congress in 2013, is discovering how loyalty to the president has become the defining question of Republican politics. His opponent, state legislator Katie Arrington, has made support for Trump the centerpiece of a surging campaign. Some Republicans who backed Sanford in the past have switched teams, citing the Trump factor.

“We have to support our president’s agenda,” said Arrington in an interview. “Trump gave people back their voice. How could you not be on board for that?”

The campaign started bitterly, and it is ending the same way. On Monday, Sanford and Arrington met at a local radio station for one last debate — 90 minutes where every issue from immigration to term limits swung back to the presidential loyalty test.

“Mark Sanford has made it his career to use taxpayer dollars to go on CNN and criticize the president,” Arrington said.

“At times, you are the master of the misleading,” Sanford retorted. “I’ve supported the president 89 percent of the time. Talk to my brother and sister — I don’t agree with them 89 percent of the time.”

Unlike some at-risk incumbents, who have been blindsided by primary challenges, Sanford saw this one coming. Some Republican voters have not forgiven him for a 2009 affair that gained national notice for his initial excuse for disappearing for several days as governor — that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail rather than visiting his paramour in Argentina.

Others would like to see Sanford, a penny-pinching member of the rebellious House Freedom Caucus, to become — or be replaced by — a more reliable pro-Trump voice.

In conversations with conservatives, the heresies pile up, from votes against funding a border wall, to support for DACA recipients, to simply appearing on CNN. The days in the governor’s mansion, when Sanford became a conservative hero for opposing the 2009 economic stimulus, are almost forgotten.

“He spends a lot of time criticizing the president and less time focusing on the folks in the 1st Congressional District,” state legislator Linda Bennett said. “I told him: Mark, I’ve had it.”

After the 2016 primaries, when Sanford hoarded his campaign cash and defeated a challenger by 12 points, the congressman predicted that he would be challenged again.

“Some of the people who are backing Representative Arrington have been against me for 10 or 15 years,” said Sanford. “We’re simply trying to match what our opponent’s spending. Based on my experience with national Republicans withdrawing from the campaign in 2013 . . . we built up resources in 2016, so we have them now.”

Still, Sanford has rarely had to mobilize as he has done in the final weeks before Tuesday’s primary. Since 2013, when he won a special election over the protests of national Republicans, Sanford had bought no TV ads.

This year, Sanford has spent close to $400,000 on television, some of it attacking Arrington — who Sanford refers to as a “politician” — for revenue-raising votes in Columbia. He has published his personal cellphone number in a newspaper ad, lingered at Republican candidate forums and held town hall meetings.

More importantly, he has worked to sow doubts about Arrington’s faith in Trump. Sanford points out that Arrington backed Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) for president, and that on Facebook in March 2016 she seemed to link approvingly to a speech where Mitt Romney pleaded with Republicans to reject Trump.

“LOVE MITT ROMNEY!!!!” Arrington wrote in the since-deleted post.

“This race is about a Never Trumper versus a Never Trumper, one of whom has a real conservative record,” said state legislator Nancy Mace, a Trump campaign veteran who has endorsed Sanford. “The goal of the establishment right now is to skew the truth to get their candidate ahead.”

In an interview, Arrington pointed out that she was “not an elected official” when she wrote the post and said that she had meant it sarcastically. Like many Republicans, she said, she had grown impressed by Trump once he won the primaries.

“He’s far more intelligent than people give him credit for,” Arrington said. “That summer of 2016 — from the guy who was on ‘The Apprentice’ to the man who was in the campaign, it was night and day to me.”

Arrington’s transition is not unique in South Carolina, where a proud and dominant Republican Party was whipsawed by the rise of Trump. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), briefly a candidate for president himself, had warned that a Trump nomination would destroy the party; former governor Nikki Haley attacked Trump for “not denouncing the KKK” in a state that had been roiled by racial politics.

Not two years later, Haley is Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, and Graham is a presidential golf buddy who says his state has fallen in line.

“Most people [in South Carolina] rally around the flag,” Graham said. “He won, and he’s doing a great job on the economy and national security.”

Sanford is not the only Republican struggling to live down his comments about Trump. In the upstate 4th Congressional District, where Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) is retiring this year, 13 Republicans are competing for a reliably red seat. Several worked to elect Trump; no one is echoing Gowdy’s occasional criticism of the White House, or his admonishment of the president for accusing a “deep state” of forging a conspiracy against him.

I’ve got to say, Trey has done a great job, but I disagree with him on that stuff,” said William Timmons, a state legislator running for Gowdy’s seat. “Deep state is a great term; it describes the Obama appointees who burrowed in and are now trying to undermine this president as he pursues America First policies.”

At the same time, Timmons and another candidate, Dan Hamilton, have found themselves on the defensive for criticisms of Trump they published on social media. In an ad sponsored by the Club for Growth, Timmons is admonished for writing that he does not always agree with the president; Hamilton, for a 2015 blog post questioning whether Trump was a conservative. The irony, Hamilton said, was that the Club for Growth once spent millions attacking Trump on the same grounds.

“These are people who spent $7 million attacking the president, and they’re hitting me for a Facebook post,” he said in an interview. “Look, I felt that I was more conservative than [Trump] was. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how conservative he is. The next congressman from this district should support him where he can but also look out for our best interests.”

In an interview, Club for Growth President David McIntosh said the group had attacked Trump because it had endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) for president, aligning itself with the president thereafter.

“Republican voters tell us over and over again that they want someone who will be supportive of the president,” McIntosh said.

In the Sanford race, his tone has been as large an issue as his positions. Arrington said she became more determined to run after one particular Sanford interview. In June 2017, after a gunman attacked Republicans on a baseball field, Sanford appeared on MSNBC and suggested that the president’s rhetoric had raised political tensions.

“I lost it,” Arrington said. “The president is culpable? Excuse me? You’re a sitting member of Congress, and you say the president is culpable? That’s when I knew he had no respect, and no regard, and was never going to be effective as the congressman from this state.”

Democrats have watched the brawl with amazement. Joe Cunningham, an attorney who is favored to win the party’s nomination on Tuesday, said that either Sanford or Arrington would exit their primary tied to Trump but with little to say to swing voters. Trump’s 53.5 percent in the district, in 2016, was five points weaker than Romney’s showing in 2012. In Democratic polling, the 1st District was South Carolina’s only GOP-held seat where the president’s approval rating was under 50 percent.

“The tribalism is out of control,” said Cunningham, after greeting voters at a Charleston-area church service. “The Founders created three branches of government for a reason. They didn’t want those branches to collude.”

Many Republicans in the district do not feel that way. On Monday, both Sanford and Arrington stopped by a luncheon for Republican women near Charleston, where the biggest star was Gov. Henry McMaster (R-S.C.). As McMaster described his “close relationship” with the president, Arrington shook hands with voters.

“I’m going to send Mark Sanford into retirement,” Arrington said. Behind her, volunteers were getting ready to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and they planted a cardboard stand-up of the president next to an American flag.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of Dan Hamilton.

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