WASHINGTON — Mark Sanford will challenge Donald Trump for the GOP nomination for president — a long-shot bid that will pit him against the Republican establishment around the country and in his home state of South Carolina, where Trump remains extremely popular.
Sanford made his decision after several weeks of personal reflection, conversations with longtime allies and visits to the other early primary states of New Hampshire and Iowa.
He announced the news in a Sunday morning interview with Fox News’s Chris Wallace, followed by an email blast under the subject line “SANFORD 2020” and including his new logo, “Sanford: Fiscal Conservative.”
The timing of the announcement was notable. It comes not three days after Sanford told The State he was not aware of when he would make a final decision on a presidential bid, citing the disruption of Hurricane Dorian as his excuse.
More significantly, it comes less than 24 hours after the South Carolina Republican Party voted nearly unanimously not to hold a GOP primary election in the state next year in a sign of loyalty to Trump — a move being replicated by three other states.
But Sanford has indicated he’s aware of the daunting challenges ahead and the extent to which he will be marginalized by members of his own party, including those in his home state.
He said he plans to run on a platform of restoring fiscal discipline to government decision-making, arguing that politicians — including the current president — are doing little to protect the country from an economic meltdown under the weight of the rising national debt.
“No one ‘leading’ in Washington is leading, or even speaking of, our financial predicament,” Sanford said in his email message.
“Presidential races focus our attention to politics and have historically been the stage on which we debate where we go next as a country,” he continued. “If we don’t do it this year, we put that national debate off until the next presidential election cycle. I don’t believe we have five more years before inaction guarantees a day of financial reckoning.”
This is a message Sanford returned to often during his two stints in the U.S. House representing the 1st Congressional District — first from 1995-2001, then from 2013-2019, when he lost his 2018 primary to pro-Trump Republican candidate Katie Arrington, who in turn lost to Democrat Joe Cunningham.
Sanford also championed fiscal restraint as the state’s governor from 2003 to 2011, famously refusing economic stimulus money on behalf of the state that could have benefited a variety of social welfare programs.
In declaring his candidacy, Sanford emphasized he would not make the race personal to Trump. It’s a notable strategy given that the president has gone out of his way to publicly criticize and humiliate Sanford — on Twitter, at campaign rallies in South Carolina and even in front of Sanford’s former colleagues on Capitol Hill.
“Can you believe it? I’m at 94% approval in the Republican Party, and have Three Stooges running against me,” Trump tweeted most recently, referring to former Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh and ex-Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, two other Republicans pursuing primary challenges. “One is ‘Mr. Appalachian Trail’ who was actually in Argentina for bad reasons.”
This was a nod to Sanford’s 2009 scandal in which he disappeared during the second term of his governorship to engage in an extramarital affair in Argentina after initially suggesting he was going to hike the Appalachian Trail — the episode that thwarted Sanford’s chances for being picked to serve on a GOP presidential ticket in 2012.
Sanford’s desire to make the race issue-focused could ultimately have the effect of failing to energize and mobilize disenchanted Republicans who desperately want to beat Trump in large part because they find his character and behavior unbecoming of the presidency.
Walsh, for instance, has called Trump “completely unfit” for the office in which he serves — a rallying cry the “Never Trump” contingent longs to hear from one of their own.
Sanford, in contrast, recently told NBC that while he didn’t believe Trump deserved a second term in office, he would still vote for Trump in 2020 if the president gets re-nominated.
As of Sunday, it was still unclear who, if anyone, Sanford has hired to help run his campaign, beyond volunteers or a couple of communications aides.
Members of the close-knit team he fostered during his previous political endeavors have said they don’t plan to join him on this campaign. In a sign of what support he’ll get from fellow South Carolina Republicans, a crowd of conservatives heckled him in late August when he attended U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan’s annual Faith and Freedom Barbecue in Anderson.
Bill Kristol, one of the most prominent Trump critics in the GOP who has been working actively to find a viable primary challenger to Trump, signaled to McClatchy DC in mid-August he wasn’t rushing to hitch his cart to Sanford’s wagon.
“He’s a credible candidate. He’s a serious, former governor,” Kristol said, but indicated he was noncommittal, adding he’d be “on board” with several Republicans candidates running against Trump.
Lesley Clark from the McClatchy Washington bureau contributed to this report.