Trump Should Welcome a Challenge from Mark Sanford

President Donald Trump speaks to reporters at the White House, June 18, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Trouncing outlier GOP candidates would help, not hurt, his reelection chances.

On Tuesday, former South Carolina governor and congressman Mark Sanford told Charleston’s Post and Courier that he’s seriously considering a primary run against Trump.

While no one in his right mind thinks Sanford has a ghost of a chance, his entry does slightly encourage Democrats and the negligible minority of Republicans who want an alternative to the president. The conventional wisdom about presidential elections has always been that presidents who face primary challenges are always damaged even if they secure the nomination without too much effort.

That belief is rooted partly in history and partly in campaign finances.

In 1976, 1980, and 1992, tough primary challenges were judged to have contributed to general-election defeats for Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H. W. Bush respectively. Though the seriousness of those contests varied — a nail-biter when Ronald Reagan nearly toppled Ford, a one-sided though spirited fight when Ted Kennedy fell short against Carter, and Pat Buchanan’s more symbolic “pitchfork” insurgency against Bush — in each case the primary fight undermined the advantages of incumbency and created a sense of vulnerability that the opposition took advantage of in the general-election campaign.

Having to campaign distracts a president from the business of governing the country, which weakens the advantage of incumbency by making him more of a politician and less of a president in the public’s eyes — and can drain his coffers, too. But none of these factors should worry Trump about Sanford or any other Republican who thinks about taking him on in the primaries.

As Never Trump hopefuls go, Sanford may be a bit more credible than the only other possible candidate, former Massachusetts governor William Weld, a lifelong liberal who was the 2016 running mate of Libertarian-party nominee Gary Johnson.

Sanford says his campaign won’t be merely a Never Trump crusade but also an effort to draw attention to government spending. He wants to bring the GOP back to its former position, as an opponent of rising debt, from its current Trumpian populist stance.

Unlike Weld, Sanford is a conservative, and he was once enough of a rising star to be considered a potential GOP presidential candidate. But his career headed in a different direction when he famously disappeared for a hike along the Appalachian Trail — when he was actually pursuing an affair with a television personality in Argentina. His subsequent public admission of the affair led to a messy divorce. But it also prompted South Carolina Republicans to try to impeach him, an effort halted by Democrats who wanted to keep the damaged Sanford in office until his term ended.

Sanford mounted a successful political comeback and won his old congressional seat back in 2013. But his tenure in the House was ended by a primary challenge in 2018 that was backed by a Trump Twitter storm owing to the president’s resentment of Sanford’s criticism. Sanford now sees 2020 to be, as he told the New York Times, “payback time.”

The conceit of his candidacy is that Sanford’s conservative credentials and favorite-son status in South Carolina could make the contest in that crucial early primary state competitive. But the logic behind this strategy is faulty.

It’s not just that an incumbent congressman who couldn’t convince fellow Republicans in his home district to vote for him is ill-suited to persuade them to topple an incumbent president. (A similar argument applies to Beto O’Rourke.) The president is enormously popular in South Carolina and won that state’s primary in 2016 by a large plurality in a multi-candidate race. South Carolina isn’t unique in terms of Trump’s popularity among GOP voters, which topped 90 percent nationwide in late June, and there’s little reason to believe that his latest controversies have done anything to change that.

Trump’s level of support within his party far exceeds that of any of the incumbent presidents who were hurt by primary challenges. And it’s why, far from hurting Trump, a serious effort by Sanford, Weld, or any other Never Trump fantasy-league candidate might actually help the president.

Without any sort of primary challenge to Trump, the Democrats will dominate the news in the first half of 2020. A contest in Weld’s New Hampshire or in Sanford’s South Carolina would allow the president to intrude into news cycles that would otherwise be about Democrats trashing him.

Being asked to turn out this winter to vote for Trump, rather than sitting back until November 2020, will also energize the president’s enthusiastic base. And Trump will relish the chance to trounce his opponents by margins that may approach that of Napoleonic referendums. Indeed, the tremendously lopsided victories that he would almost certainly score would only enhance the sense that Republicans are united behind him. And while Trump would be foolish to spend much time or money (which he is rolling in) swatting down the likes of Sanford, unlike most presidents, he prefers holding campaign rallies to the dull business of governing.

Seen from this perspective, the Trump campaign ought to be rooting for outliers such as Sanford to jump into the race. As is often the case when Trump is at issue, the old rules no longer apply.

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