On Sunday, Mark Sanford announced that he is going to write another chapter in what has been one of the wackiest political narratives of the past 25 years.
“I think we need to have a conversation on what it means to be a Republican,” Sanford told “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace as he formally entered the 2020 Republican primary race against President Donald Trump, joining former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld and former House member Joe Walsh on the primary ticket.
And on cue, Trump responded. Tweeted Trump early Monday morning:
“When the former Governor of the Great State of South Carolina, @MarkSanford, was reported missing, only to then say he was away hiking on the Appalachian Trail, then was found in Argentina with his Flaming Dancer friend, it sounded like his political career was over. It was, but then he ran for Congress and won, only to lose his re-elect after I Tweeted my endorsement, on Election Day, for his opponent. But now take heart, he is back, and running for President of the United States. The Three Stooges, all badly failed candidates, will give it a go!”
Which is one way to summarize Sanford’s career!
Sanford was elected as one of the Republican revolutionaries of the US House class of 1994 and left after six years to run for governor of South Carolina. In 2002, he beat incumbent Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges and was easily reelected four years later.
And that’s when talk of Sanford running for president – talk he did little to tamp down – began. Right up until the summer of 2009, when Sanford (always an odd duck but someone who had been able to turn that idiosyncrasy into political success as an outsider) went missing. As in, simply left the state. Aides said that he told them he had gone to hike the Appalachian Trail.
That story fell apart when Sanford was spotted at the airport returning from Argentina, where, it turned out, he had been visiting a woman he had been having an affair with. What followed was one of the most insane news conferences in modern political history, in which Sanford admitted he had been unfaithful to his wife and said things like this: “And the biggest self of self is, indeed, self; that sin is, in fact, grounded in this notion of what is it that I want as opposed to somebody else?”
Had Sanford resigned (he didn’t) or simply finished his term and disappeared, that would be one heck of a rise and fall. But the story didn’t end there. Not even close!
Tim Scott’s appointment to the Senate in 2013 created a special election in Sanford’s old 1st District. And thanks to lots of residual name ID, Sanford beat out 15 other candidates to win the GOP nomination and went on to win the general, too – reclaiming the seat he had held almost a decade before. “I am an imperfect man saved by God’s grace,” Sanford said at the time.
And then he lost. Again. To a Republican named Katie Arrington, who ran a primary campaign based almost entirely on the idea that Sanford had been insufficiently loyal to the President. (Sanford had been somewhat critical of some of Trump’s more over-the-top statements.) Then Arrington lost the general election to Democratic Rep. Joe Cunningham in November 2018.
Which brings us, roughly, to Sunday – when Sanford, after several weeks of public contemplation, officially entered the presidential race. In a series of tweets, Sanford insisted he wasn’t running to get back at Trump or even to focus on the President’s personality.
“I am compelled to enter the Presidential Primary as a Republican for several reasons – the most important of which is to further and foster a national debate on our nation’s debt, deficits and spending,” tweeted Sanford, adding: “We have a storm coming that we are neither talking about nor preparing for given that we, as a country, are more financially vulnerable than we have ever been since our Nation’s start and the Civil War. We are on a collision course with financial reality. We need to act now.”
That message of fiscal restraint is broadly consistent with where Sanford has been his entire political career. And there is no question that the GOP under Trump has totally abandoned its once-prominent fiscal hawkishness. (The federal budget deficit rose 27% as of July.)
But don’t assume that those two factors mean Sanford’s wildly unpredictable political career is back on the upswing. Trump’s popularity within the GOP, coupled with Sanford’s, uh, baggage, makes another political resurrection very, very unlikely.