By Jim Ellis
Sept. 1, 2017 — We all remember former Gov. Mark Sanford’s ignominious exit from the South Carolina political scene in 2010, a year after his international extra-marital affair became worldwide news. His political exile did not last long, as he was able to return to the US House in 2013, winning a special election for the Charleston-anchored congressional district after then-Rep. Tim Scott (R-Charleston) was appointed to the Senate after incumbent Jim DeMint (R) resigned from office.
Considering the way in which Sanford left office, which before engaging in the affair was widely regarded as a successful governorship to the point of him being mentioned as a potential 2012 presidential candidate, his quick return to elective politics was surprising. And, his re-election to the district he previously represented from 1995-2001 proved rather extraordinary.
After winning the 2013 special, Sanford did not even draw a Democratic opponent in the 2014 regular election, capturing 93 percent of the vote against only minor party opposition.
The Democrats did file a candidate in 2016 who held the congressman to a 59 percent victory, which was a bit thin considering his general election opponent spent only $26,000 on his campaign. Earlier in the cycle, Sanford fended off a primary challenge from a Republican state representative, Jenny Horne, who would spend just $145,000 on her primary challenge. In that contest, Sanford registered 56 percent of the GOP vote, again not an overwhelming performance against an underfunded opponent.
Yesterday, Rep. Sanford drew a new Republican challenger for 2018, an individual who might prove his toughest opponent since coming back. State Rep. Katie Arrington (R-Summerville) announced her congressional candidacy yesterday and immediately received endorsements from state House Speaker Jay Lucas (R-Hartsville) and Majority Leader Gary Simrill (R-Rock Hill).
While governor, Sanford’s relationship with Republican state House and Senate leaders was notoriously poor, so the current leadership immediately standing behind one of their own members to battle the former chief executive isn’t particularly surprising. It does signal, however, that Arrington will likely be a more serious candidate than the others he has faced since returning to the House.
But the crux of the campaign may revolve around President Trump and whether a large number of his 1st District base supporters will transfer to Arrington. She is a vocal Trump supporter, and made her intent to invoke the president in her primary challenge very clear in yesterday’s declaration of candidacy.
Sanford is no fan of Trump, and was a public critic during the important 2016 South Carolina GOP primary, a contest where the future president swept all seven of the state’s congressional districts on his way to capturing the complete slate of South Carolina Republican delegates. Rep. Sanford’s negative stance also didn’t stop Trump from scoring a 53-40 percent SC-1 victory margin in the general election.
The 1st District encompasses the southern half of the South Carolina coastline from tiny McClellanville through Hilton Head Island. The city of Charleston is the population anchor, with a finger extending toward the northwest to include the Summerville and Goose Creek communities before ending at Lake Moultrie.
Rep. Sanford must be rated the favorite to win re-nomination and another term in 2018, but his political portfolio is not without weakness. Whether or not Arrington becomes a threatening challenger is of course yet to be determined, but her turning the 2018 Republican 1st District primary into a competitive contest is a plausible possibility.