Primary lesson for GOP: Don’t cross Trump

  • U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford hugs his son after speaking at Liberty Tap Room in Mount Pleasant, S.C., Tuesday. ap photo

  • State Rep. Katie Arrington hugs supporters as she defeated U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel for Katie Arrington's results party on Tuesday, June 12, 2018, in North Charleston, S.C. (Andrew Whitaker/The Post And Courier via AP) Andrew Whitaker

Associated Press
Wednesday, June 13, 2018

WASHINGTON — Don’t cross President Donald Trump.

That’s the lesson many Republicans are drawing from Rep. Mark Sanford’s surprise defeat Tuesday in his primary election in South Carolina. The victor, state Rep. Katie Arrington, repeatedly highlighted Sanford’s criticism of the president.

The outcome is a cautionary tale for Republicans in Congress who try to work with Trump while also maintaining their independence. One wrong turn — or in Sanford’s case, many — and they could face the wrath of a president who is quick to attack detractors as enemies, even in his own party.

“That’s ultimately what the race devolved down to, which was, was I Trump enough?” Sanford told reporters on Capitol Hill.

“It’s a very tribal environment right now,” he said. “Are you for or against Trump?”

He said he hoped his defeat would not dissuade other members from speaking out against Trump. Agreeing to disagree is “a sign of health in our political system.”

Sanford is the second incumbent House Republican to lose a primary this year, though the defeat of Rep. Robert Pittenger in North Carolina came despite his staunch support for the president.

Still, Sanford is only the latest casualty in the intra-party conflict that has roiled the GOP in the Trump era. Trump is known to remember slights from lawmakers.

Rep. Martha Roby, for example, was forced into a runoff last week in Alabama after her opponents seized on her own rift with the president. In 2016, after the release of a tape in which candidate Trump bragged about grabbing women, Roby said she wouldn’t vote for him for president.

Recent results have a message, said Rep. Barry Loudermilk in neighboring Georgia. Be a team player or Trump will support someone who will be.

“It doesn’t make me nervous, but it probably gives pause to some who want to openly criticize the president,” he said.

Trump celebrated Sanford’s defeat on Twitter, claiming success in ousting a foe. In a highly unusual move for a president, he had tweeted an endorsement of Arrington on Tuesday afternoon when polls were still open in South Carolina.

“My political representatives didn’t want me to get involved in the Mark Sanford primary thinking that Sanford would easily win - but with a few hours left I felt that Katie was such a good candidate, and Sanford was so bad, I had to give it a shot,” he said.

The transformation of the GOP under Trump makes some lawmakers uneasy.

It’s “becoming a cultish thing, isn’t it?” said retiring Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who has an on-off relationship with Trump. “And it’s not a good place for any party to end up with a cult-like situation.”

To be sure, the president’s track record of picking winners and losers in elections is not perfect. He also backed Gov. Henry McMaster, who replaced Nikki Haley in South Carolina, but McMaster was forced into a primary runoff with Greenville businessman John Warren.

And Trump famously backed Roy Moore, the former Alabama judge accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls, in a special election earlier this year that delivered the state’s first Democrat to the U.S. Senate in a generation.

But Trump’s preference for populist candidates like Corey Stewart, the Confederate-statue-supporting Republican who won the GOP nomination for Senate in Virginia on Tuesday, increasingly seems to be remaking the GOP, if not Congress, in his image. Stewart will face Sen. Tim Kaine, the Democratic Party’s 2016 vice presidential nominee, in the fall.

As former Speaker John Boehner said recently, “There is no Republican Party. There’s a Trump Party.”

Recent polls have found that more than 80 percent of Republican voters approve of the job Trump is doing, and that makes GOP lawmakers hesitant to criticize him.

“Yes, of course it’s his party,” said Doug Heye, a former House GOP leadership aide, now a party strategist. “That’s only more true today, given his high popularity among Republican voters.”

He said lawmakers would be wise to keep their differences with the president low-key and within the range of policy, not personality, so as not to alienate Republican primary voters protective of the commander in chief. “What they will not support is someone they view as going after the president personally,” Heye said.