SC’s Mark Sanford officially launches long-shot bid to take down Donald Trump

In a long-shot bid for the White House, Mark Sanford says he will challenge President Donald Trump for the GOP nomination — a move that will pit him against the Republican establishment around the country and in his home state of South Carolina, where Trump remains extremely popular.

A former S.C. governor and congressman, Sanford said he made his decision after several weeks of personal reflection, conversations with longtime allies and visits to the other early primary states of New Hampshire and Iowa.

He announced the news in a Sunday morning interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace, followed by an email blast under the subject line “SANFORD 2020” which included his new campaign slogan — “Sanford: Fiscal Conservative.”

The timing of the announcement was notable. It came not three days after Sanford told The State he did not know when he would make a final decision on a presidential bid, citing the disruption of Hurricane Dorian as an excuse.

More significantly, it came less than 24 hours after the South Carolina Republican Party voted nearly unanimously not to hold a GOP primary election in the state next year in a sign of loyalty to Trump — a move being replicated by three other states.

Sanford has said he’s aware of the daunting challenges ahead, noting the extent to which he will be marginalized by members of his own party, including those in his home state.

But despite those obstacles, he told The State on Sunday, “you never say never in the world of politics.”

Sanford said he plans to run on a platform of restoring fiscal discipline to government decision-making, arguing that politicians — including the current president — are doing little to protect the country from an economic meltdown under the weight of the rising national debt.

“No one ‘leading’ in Washington is leading, or even speaking of, our financial predicament,” Sanford said in his email message.

“Presidential races focus our attention to politics and have historically been the stage on which we debate where we go next as a country,” he continued. “If we don’t do it this year, we put that national debate off until the next presidential election cycle. I don’t believe we have five more years before inaction guarantees a day of financial reckoning.”

This is a message Sanford returned to often during his two stints in the U.S. House representing the 1st Congressional District — first from 1995-2001, then from 2013-2019, when he lost his 2018 primary to pro-Trump Republican candidate Katie Arrington, who in turn lost to Democrat Joe Cunningham.

Sanford also championed fiscal restraint as the state’s governor from 2003 to 2011, famously refusing economic stimulus money on behalf of the state that could have benefited a variety of social welfare programs.

A lonely ride

Sanford offered a small glimpse into his unorthodox presidential campaign Sunday afternoon, as he traveled from Washington, D.C., where he’d taped his Fox News interview, to New York City, where he has multiple media appearances lined up throughout the day Monday.

Rather than opting for a quick plane ride or the comfort of the train — where tickets for both can be costly — Sanford said in a phone interview with The State he was currently riding on the Megabus, a discount bus service where tickets cost around $30. He did concede he paid an additional $8 for a “premium upgrade” that entitled him to the front row seats on the bus’ second level and a “fantastic” view of the highway.

Travel isn’t the only area where Sanford is trying to save money, or practice what he preaches. He also hasn’t yet spent any cash to hire seasoned campaign consultants or political operatives, despite having more than $1 million in the campaign account he maintained as a member of Congress, which he can now tap into as a presidential contender.

Over the past month, Sanford said he has deployed a “benevolent crew of volunteers who said they believed in the themes I’ve talked about.”

He confirmed these volunteers have “absolutely not” ever held senior roles with campaigns of this scope, but they would likely stay on with him for the foreseeable future.

“I like dealing with people I’ve dealt with for a while,” Sanford explained. “The idea of new hired guns that I’ve never dealt with or don’t know is not really my cup of tea.”

But while Sanford said he was relying on loyal foot soldiers to help power his movement, members of the close-knit team he fostered during his previous political endeavors have said they don’t plan to join him on this campaign.

And in a sign of what support he’ll get from fellow South Carolina Republicans, a crowd of conservatives heckled him in late August when he attended U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan’s annual Faith and Freedom Barbecue in Anderson.

“Let’s be clear,” said S.C. GOP Chairman Drew McKissick in a statement Sunday. “Mark Sanford is looking to raise his political career from the grave, not ... advance ideas. The simple fact is that South Carolina Republicans overwhelmingly support President Trump and this vanity project is going absolutely nowhere.”

Never Trump?

Sanford doesn’t appear to be bothered by his marginalization among home state Republicans, or by the added setback of not being admitted into early state primary elections.

He said some supporters have suggested he sue states to reinstate their primaries, or that he run on a third-party ticket to ensure he remains a contender through November 2020 — but he’s inclined to reject both recommendations.

On the decision to cancel primary elections, Sanford said it was a suspicious strategy.

“I think it’s most curious. It suggests maybe some of the strength that’s perceived and talked about isn’t as real, or they don’t believe it’s as real, as they’re suggesting,” Sanford argued.

As to whether he would run as a Libertarian or an Independent, Sanford said he spoke to a “Republican lieutenant governor in the United States” who, like many others, said it was critical that the debate on the debt take place within, not on the fringes of, the Republican Party.

Though Sanford has indicated he’d be sticking strongly to his fiscal message on the campaign trail, he confirmed Sunday he would talk about other issues, too, where he differed from the president — from his opposition to tariffs to his support for more regulations to protect the environment.

Sanford has so far has resisted making his campaign a “revenge” mission against Trump, who played some role in helping him lose his congressional primary in 2018 and has frequently gone out of his way to publicly criticize and humiliate Sanford — on Twitter, at campaign rallies in South Carolina and even in front of Sanford’s former colleagues on Capitol Hill.

“Can you believe it? I’m at 94% approval in the Republican Party, and have Three Stooges running against me,” Trump tweeted most recently, referring to former Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh and ex-Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, two other Republicans pursuing primary challenges. “One is ‘Mr. Appalachian Trail’ who was actually in Argentina for bad reasons.”

This was a nod to Sanford’s 2009 scandal in which he disappeared during the second term of his governorship to engage in an extramarital affair in Argentina after initially suggesting he was going to hike the Appalachian Trail. The episode thwarted Sanford’s chances for being picked to serve on a GOP presidential ticket in 2012.

But Sanford said Sunday he would “absolutely” go after Trump’s character in the weeks and months ahead. That is a tactic that could earn him more supporters and help energize those conservatives in the “Never Trump” movement — a constituency that wants to see a Republican campaign directly against what they perceive as Trump’s lack of moral fiber.

It is a constituency Sanford has yet to win over. Not even Bill Kristol, one of the most prominent Trump critics in the GOP who has been working actively to find a viable primary challenger to Trump, was immediately rushing to hitch his cart to Sanford’s wagon.

“He’s a credible candidate. He’s a serious, former governor,” Kristol said of Sanford in an interview with the McClatchy Washington bureau last month.

Kristol also said he’d be “on board” with any of the several Republican candidates mulling a challenge to Trump.

Maayan Schechter of The State and Lesley Clark from the McClatchy Washington bureau contributed to this report.

Emma Dumain covers Congress and congressional leadership for McClatchy DC and the company’s newspapers around the country. She previously covered South Carolina politics out of McClatchy’s Washington bureau. From 2008-2015, Dumain was a congressional reporter for CQ Roll Call.