Mark Sanford ponders another rocky trail: challenging Trump

Former Rep. Mark Sanford speaks with attendees at Rep. Jeff Duncan’s annual fundraiser in Anderson.

Last week, a powerful storm lashed the coast of South Carolina, prompting mandatory evacuations and activating the state’s emergency response plan.

As he prepares a long-shot bid at the presidency, former governor and U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford says another tempest is brewing that would be even more devastating in its own way.

“I believe, as certain as the sun rises, that we’re walking into a financial disaster,” Sanford said in a Monday interview with the Index-Journal. “If you have expertise and experience on budgetary matters and you see the equivalent of a financial hurricane coming toward the shores of South Carolina and you don’t say anything about it, then shame on you.”

On Monday, the Congressional Budget Office said America’s deficit surpassed $1 trillion through the first 11 months of the 2019 fiscal year.

In 2017-18, Sanford was a member of the U.S. House Budget Committee.

“I think we have deviated from core conservative principles. And that will ultimately harm the Republican Party. It’s not conservative to grow government by over a trillion dollars and stick our kids with the bill. I would grant you the fact it might be more pleasant to sit on the sidelines and go about making money and focusing on some other things in life, but I feel called to speak up on this.”

Shame.

Any conversation with the 59-year-old Republican comes back to that word. Sanford, who ran the state from 2003 through 2011 and then served the 1st Congressional District from 2013 until Jan. 3, doesn’t run from it.

He knows that the one week in 2009 when he abandoned the governor’s mansion and went to Buenos Aires into the arms of his mistress, Maria Belen Chapur, will always be part of his story. That the excuse he gave of hiking the Appalachian Trail has become a euphemism for infidelity.

But, Sanford said, his ascent back into the good graces of constituents — statewide and in the 1st Congressional District — shows no person needs to be defined by the valleys of their life.

“The football team that loses spends a whole lot more time looking at game film than the team that won. I think there’s introspection and focus that comes with failure, I think there’s a level of humility and empathy that doesn’t come when all the stars are rising,” Sanford said. “It’s rather life-changing in terms of one’s perspective on life and one’s empathy and attentiveness toward others.”

On Monday, President Donald Trump skewered Sanford’s sordid past in a tweet mocking his ambition to capture the White House.

“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,” Trump said. “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!”

Trump’s allusion to the hapless TV trio referenced Sanford, former Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh and the former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, who are all seeking to defeat Trump in a primary election.

Sanford, who voted with Trump 90% of the time while he was in Congress, said Trump’s lack of decency was another contributing factor for him to enter the presidential field.

“I think the Republican Party is being hurt by the president’s tone on a whole range of issues. I would say most folks I talk to are acutely aware of the feeling of shame. It’s part of what holds us back from criticizing others,” Sanford said. “That’s something that’s lost on him, and I feel sorry for him in that regard because that’s very important in the way we related to those closest to us.”

Sanford won’t have a chance to engage Trump in at least four states where GOP officials have canceled a 2020 primary, including South Carolina. Arizona, Kansas and Nevada have done the same.

“It says to me that their support is a mile wide and perhaps an inch deep,” Sanford said.

The Palmetto State, with its rich history of political representation at some of America’s highest levels, is being particularly hurt by locking out primary contenders from voters.

“I think they deserve a chance at the conversation. I don’t think it’s in the best interest of South Carolina to skip a chance for them to have their voices heard,” Sanford said. “We’ve ended up with Cabinet secretaries, UN ambassadors, a whole host of political voices in D.C. as a consequence of our first-in-the-South primary system.”

As governor, Sanford crisscrossed the state during campaigns and while in office. He said he plans to do so again with the White House in his sights.

“I’ve gotten to know people all across the state. If you’re not even going to have a race, it doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of time in the state, but I’ve got a lot of raw respect for it,” he said.

The outspoken Sanford also hopes to bring a more civil tone to the political arena he’s been a part of for more than 25 years.

“If it’s about a cult of personality, which is at odds with conservatism, if you say that’s what goes, then we’re in new waters, and we ought to think about those and the implications of the party going forward,” Sanford said. It is the harsh tone that actually turns off young millennials in droves, why so much of our party is shrinking. We are kidding ourselves to think this ends well for the Republican Party.”

Contact staff writer Adam Benson at 864-943-5650 or on Twitter @ABensonIJ.