Don’t cry for Mark Sanford. Last Tuesday, the former South Carolina governor and member of the U.S. House of Representatives suffered the first electoral defeat of his political career at the hands of upstart Trump supporter S.C. Rep. Katie Arrington. Until that day, Sanford had been the Rasputin of local politics, able to survive a very public scandal involving his own marital infidelity and its tumultuous aftermath. South Carolina voters were willing to forgive him that indiscretion, but they could not tolerate his perceived disloyalty to President Donald Trump.
Sanford was unapologetic in defeat, a fact that was made plain in his concession speech and in interviews since the election. During the primary, Sanford said voters continuously asked him if he was “for or against Trump.” Sanford proclaimed that he was neither for or against the president, but that he was for the Constitution of the United States. His answer seemed to recognize the distinction that the two were becoming mutually exclusive.
In his lengthy concession speech, Sanford pledged continuing adherence to the conservative principles which put him into office, acknowledging that the Republican Party had changed under Trump’s leadership to something much less noble. It was clear during Sanford’s election night eulogy that he was willing to stick to those principles even if it meant criticizing the president or losing his seat in Congress. That adherence to principle, at least in the case of defying a president who is as popular as Trump is in South Carolina, required true political courage.
Unfortunately, this type of courage is in short supply these days. It seems the only Republicans willing to call out the President are those not running for re-election (see Sen. Jeff Flake from Arizona). Our own congressman, Rep. Trey Gowdy, has also had the temerity to contradict the president. For that, he lost many of the conservative plaudits earned as point man in the House investigation of Benghazi … and Hillary Clinton. Gowdy contradicted Trump’s claims that the FBI planted a spy in his presidential campaign for political purposes, immediately drawing condemnation from conservative commentators on Fox News, where President Trump can apparently do no wrong. That Gowdy shares Sanford’s courage in this regard is notable, but Gowdy had already announced that he would not be running for re-election before stepping out of line.
Sanford has taken many positions over the years with which I disagree, but I never once doubted his commitment to his libertarian principles and his willingness to take a stand even when it wasn’t popular. That is an admirable quality in an elected representative, even if it might not be the way to guarantee re-election. While he was pilloried for his rambling press conference once he returned from the ‘Appalachian Trail,’ his candid admission about the details stood in stark contrast to the behavior of others in similar situations. Even then, Sanford’s openness and adherence to what he believed was right, in the face of moral shortcomings, remained one of his most maddening and endearing personal qualities even up until his primary defeat.
President Trump’s election day tweet may have put the final nail in Sanford’s political coffin, but that should not be an indictment of Sanford as much as it is an indication of how much Trump dominates today’s Republican party. For his willingness to criticize the president when he is wrong, I have nothing but respect for Rep. Sanford for having the spine and courage to do what most Republican members of Congress are unwilling to do. Sanford’s many years of public service and willingness to take a stand, going so far as to lose his own seat in Congress, make him a true maverick.