Analysis

Republican candidates learn a sex scandal is survivable. Slagging Trump is not

The political risk for Republicans of failing to show fealty to the U.S. president came into sharp relief Tuesday night, following a humbling primary defeat of South Carolina congressman Mark Sanford.

A Republican critic of Trump goes down in primary defeat, discovering it doesn’t pay to poke the bear

U.S. President Donald Trump's approval rating among Republican voters, according to a June 2018 poll, is around 90 per cent. Criticizing the president is a dangerous game for Republican candidates ahead of midterm elections. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

In the Republican Party of 2018, it seems, you can survive re-election if you're unfaithful to your wife — but not if you're unfaithful to President Donald Trump.

The danger of being perceived as a Trump critic and a Republican was brought into sharp relief on Tuesday night, following South Carolina congressman Mark Sanford's defeat in the Republican primary.

It's a crucial lesson ahead of the midterms, Republican strategists say.

The House conservative lied to his now ex-wife about his extramarital affair in Argentina while he was governor of South Carolina nine years ago. He lied about hiking the Appalachian Trail to cover for the tryst. And yet, the Republican lawmaker managed to survive politically and reclaim his House seat in 2013.

Rep. Mark Sanford, a Republican from South Carolina, was a vocal critic of U.S. President Donald Trump. His criticisms of the president may have led to his primary election defeat on Tuesday night. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

But when the arch-conservative dared speak out candidly against Trump in recent months — objecting to steel and aluminum tariffs and criticizing him last year for fanning "the flames of intolerance" — his opposition to the president appeared to cross the line for primary voters.

On Tuesday night, Republicans in the Palmetto State dumped Sanford. He lost by four percentage points to the Trump-endorsed Katie Arrington, a state lawmaker. The reason was no mystery.

"I'm neither for nor against Trump," Sanford said in his concession speech, though he admitted his feuds with the president "may have cost me the election."

Maybe so. A Gallup Daily tracking poll put Trump's support at 90 per cent among Republicans in the week of June 4. Arrington had portrayed Sanford in attack ads as a "Never Trumper."

At her victory rally, she proudly reminded supporters, "We are the party of President Donald J. Trump."

The upshot, frequent Trump surrogate Joe Borelli said in an interview, is that the Republican leadership won't be openly disagreeing with the president any time soon, no matter how unpalatable Trump's trade wars or fiscal policies seem to the rank and file.

"Peril to those who aren't on board," Borelli said. "Trump is very influential within his own party. This verifies the polling. If you're a Republican, it's almost cute that there are still 'Never Trump' Republicans."

In no way, shape or form is it OK for Republican candidates to disagree politically with President Trump.- Matt Moore, former staffer for South Carolina congressman Mark Sanford

"I think it's a cult of personality, that the guy said he's going to do it his own way; that it's going to work; and that it's still happening and he still hasn't broken character," he said.

Borelli expects Republican lawmakers to stampede toward Trump now in the primaries, and for the anti-Trump insurrection within the party to wither away.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, arguably the loudest voice to oppose Trump from the right, is battling aggressive brain cancer. Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, another Trump critic, announced last October he won't seek re-election, though he likely didn't stand much of a chance, Borelli said.

Poll volunteer Tom Spain hands out stickers to Sanford after he cast his own ballot at Alhambra Hall polling station Tuesday. (Grace Beahm Alfrod/Post and Courier/Associated Press)

Martha Roby, the Alabama Republican who withdrew her endorsement of Trump in 2016 following the Access Hollywood tape leak, will have to face a run-off election next month that could result in her ouster.

"And Mitt Romney now looks like a pro-Trump candidate," Borelli said, after the former Republican presidential candidate predicted last week that Trump would "solidly" win a second term amid Trump's stewardship in a "strong economy."

Don't 'poke the bear'

Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker, who once accused the president of leading the U.S. "on the path to World War III," also announced he would be retiring rather than face off in a bruising primary to seek a third term.

On his way out with no elections left to lose, Corker vented his frustrations with the Republican leadership on the Senate floor this week. In an extraordinary rebuke, he accused his Senate colleagues of holding back from voting on an amendment to limit Trump's ability to impose tariffs that many economists fear will hurt Americans.

State Rep. Katie Arrington hugs supporters after she defeated U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford in a South Carolina primary. (Andrew Whitaker/Post and Courier/Associated Press)

"We're worried, somehow, that gosh, almighty … well, gosh! We might upset the president! We might upset the president of the United States — before the midterms!" he said, incredulous.

More than "95 per cent" of his Republican colleagues would likely have supported his amendment "intellectually," Corker went on, striking his desk.

"But no, no, no. Gosh, we might poke the bear!"

On Wednesday, Corker went further, diagnosing the problem to NBC News as "a cult-like situation" whereby no Republican dares challenge the president ahead of the midterm elections.

In the meantime, brace for Republicans in more Trump-favouring conservative states like North Dakota or Montana to "run as big Trump fans," said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia's Centre for Politics.

There may be exceptions in swing states such as Florida, where the environment is so split that Gov. Rick Scott can afford to show a more independent streak, he said.

Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, has spoken more freely about Trump after announcing he won't run in next year's midterms. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)

But it's obvious from Sanford's loss, he said, that criticism of the president by a Republican "can make you a marked man or woman."

It happened to Sanford, after all, despite his reputation as a populist conservative, a member of the hardline House Freedom Caucus and a reliable vote on Republican orthodoxy on issues such as free trade and tax reform.

"He seems to check so many conservative boxes, but his criticisms of the president did him in," Skelley said.

Before Tuesday night in South Carolina, Sanford had never lost an election. Now, according to one of his former staffers, Matt Moore, his defeat serves as a cautionary tale for any Republican candidates running in November's midterms.

Trump's 'unhelpful' tweet

The lesson, as Moore put it in a phone interview, is clear: "In no way, shape or form is it OK for Republican candidates to disagree politically with President Trump."

Within hours of polls closing on Tuesday night, Trump sent a tweet slamming Sanford for being "very unhelpful to me," and imploring South Carolina to "VOTE Katie!"

Whether or not it was a difference-maker, Moore said, it was a win for Trump.

Sanford believes that Trump's tweet sealed his fate, telling the Washington Post on Wednesday that Republican candidates "don't want the tweet that I got last night."

While Moore wasn't expecting his former boss to lose, he said Sanford's problem began in 2016 when he squeaked by against his primary opponent, after having already offended female voters due to his extramarital affair.

"Sanford just needed to give male voters a reason to vote against him, and this perceived opposition to President Trump was a good enough reason."

Sanford's voting record has actually aligned with Trump's position 73 per cent of the time.

"But with this administration, it's not always about voting records," Moore said. "It's about willingness to come to the table and work with the president, and it's like, if you're not 100 per cent my friend, you're my enemy."

Audience member Robin Roy, centre, reacts as Trump greets her at a campaign rally in 2016. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

About the Author

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong

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