“It takes a long time to build up the trust and credibility that goes with a brand. And so I think we’re doing serious brand destruction. It will have a lasting impact in the way that young people vote, and there’s a big crop of millennials and Gen X folks that have come into their time of politics,” Sanford, a former South Carolina governor and congressman, said in a 45-minute interview with The Hill.
“People don’t want McDonald’s for the burgers; they go for the fact that they know what they’re going to get,” he said. “And if people don’t know what they’re going to get in the Republican Party, they will use other products.”
Sanford, who this month became the third Republican to launch a long-shot primary challenge against Trump, also accused his former House colleagues of putting their own political survival and relevance above their conservative principles, such as deficit reduction and opposing tariffs.
“If you’re just about staying in the game, it could work for a little while but in the long run I think it’s just disastrous,” Sanford said. “So I think that we are making big mistakes as the Republican Party in the way in which we’re not standing for ideas and looking the other way on things that we would not give Barack Obama a pass on.
“Everybody wants to stay relevant. Everyone wants to stay in the game. But it makes you that much more irrelevant in the long run. Because at the end of day, you’re not addressing needs and concerns that are core to where people come from.”
Of course, Sanford, 59, knows firsthand the political cost of publicly criticizing and taking on the president. After Sanford publicly and repeatedly broke with Trump on issues like tariffs, offshore drilling and the president’s tax returns and rhetoric, Trump retaliated, endorsing Sanford’s 2018 primary challenger, Katie Arrington, a Trump loyalist. She beat Sanford, then lost the coastal, 1st Congressional District seat to Democrat Joe Cunningham by about 4,000 votes.
Cunningham’s surprise victory in the deep-red district is a cautionary tale for the Republican Party, Sanford said.
“This movie does not end well, and the 1st Congressional District is a precursor. It’s Charles Dickens’s dream of ghosts to come. In this district, which is a solidly Republican district, it went Democratic for the first time in 50 years. And it did so in large measure because of tone” from Trump, Sanford said. “So what you had was working women, stay-at-home moms, young millennials turn against the president in large part because of tone. They said, ‘What’s going on here is wholly inconsistent with what I’m trying to teach my kids.’
“People said enough is enough.”
As a popular governor in an early primary state, Sanford had once been viewed as a strong contender to take on then-President Obama in the 2012 cycle. But his White House aspirations were derailed in 2009 after he lied to his staff and the public, saying that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail when he was having an extramarital affair in Argentina.
His time outside politics, however, was short-lived. With broad name recognition, the fiscally conservative Sanford won his old House seat in a special election in 2013 at a time when cutting the deficit and spending in Washington was in vogue in the GOP.
He would eventually join the ultraconservative House dom Caucus, whose leaders, including Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) would become some of Trump’s most loyal allies on Capitol Hill. Today, Sanford’s dom Caucus friends call his primary campaign against Trump a fool’s errand. And they say it’s rich that the South Carolina Republican is trying to lecture them.
“I would have said to Mark, ‘It sounds like you’re projecting, doesn’t it? You’re telling me you’re gonna run for president because, why? You’re trying to get political relevancy,’ ” Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), the incoming dom Caucus chairman, told The Hill. “I don’t really have a problem with what those guys are doing, but the reality is it’s irrelevant. It’s tangential to where we’re going to end up.”
Asked if he considered Sanford a “friend,” Rep. Joe Wilson, a fellow South Carolina Republican, went silent for eight seconds. Wilson pointed to a recent GOP primary poll in his state, which showed Trump receiving 95 percent to Sanford’s 2 percent.
“That was quite a tribute to President Trump’s ability to unify the party,” Wilson said.
Sanford seems almost resigned to the reality that Trump will be the GOP nominee in 2020. He couldn’t name a state that he could win in the primary. But Sanford said his entry into the primary is spurring a debate in the party, and he believes his campaign message — a return to civility and fiscal conservatism — is resonating with GOP voters on the campaign trail, including those he spoke to at the University of South Carolina football game last weekend.
“I thought I’d get blowback … and yet that was not the case. The number of people coming up to me were saying we do need to have this debate,” Sanford said. “I thought that was remarkable.”
Yet it’s unlikely Sanford and the other two primary challengers — former Tea Party Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) and former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld — will get a chance to square off with Trump on a GOP debate stage.
Trump has mocked Sanford as “Mr. Appalachian Trail” and dubbed the trio of challengers “The Three Stooges.” And Republican state parties in South Carolina, Arizona, Kansas and Nevada have scrapped their primary elections to help clear the path for Trump’s nomination.
Asked about the Trump campaign’s moves to quash the competition, Sanford replied: Trump “doesn’t feel confident about his ideas in the public square.”
Would Sanford vote for the Democratic nominee over Trump in the 2020 general election? He isn’t closing the door on the possibility. He likes former Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), but concedes he won’t win the nomination.
“I’ll look at that issue when it comes to me based on issues that I believe in and whoever stands closest to the ideas that I believe in,” Sanford said.