The Republican Party has long been a free-market party. The basic idea of free markets is that when there is competition between vendors, both buyers and sellers benefit. Competition forces sellers to be innovative and efficient and, in return, they have the opportunity to earn profits and market share with a well-run business. Buyers benefit from lower prices and a wider variety of products to choose from. So it is with Mark Sanford’s consideration of a primary challenge against President Trump.
Right now, the Republican Party is a monopoly. For years, I countered liberal claims that there was no diversity on the right by saying that Republicans had diversity of thought while the left largely engaged in groupthink. Today, however, that intellectual diversity is largely a thing of the past. Republican opinion ranges from those who enthusiastically agree with everything that Donald Trump says to those who reluctantly agree with almost everything that Donald Trump says.
Enter Mark Sanford.
Sanford is a former governor of South Carolina who served from 2003 through 2011. In June 2009, he admitted to an extramarital affair after an unexplained absence in which he had traveled to Argentina to meet his mistress. After his divorce, Sanford staged a comeback and was elected to the House of Representatives where he served from 2013 until this year after being defeated in the Republican primary.
As a congressman, Sanford backed Trump in 2016 but became “one of the president’s most eloquent critics” per the Washington Post. Despite his criticism, FiveThirtyEight noted that Sanford had one of the strongest pro-Trump voting records in the House. He lost the 2018 Republican primary election after Trump attacked him on Twitter and endorsed his opponent, who ultimately lost the seat to a Democrat in the general election.
Sanford is likely to be a stronger contender against Donald Trump than William Weld, the former Massachusetts governor and Libertarian candidate who has already launched a primary challenge against President Trump. Weld, who has so far run a stealth campaign, is a fiscal conservative but holds views on social issues that are outside the Republican mainstream. Sanford, on the other hand, has a 93 percent rating from Freedom Works. Conservative Review lamented his primary loss, noting that he was defeated because he had opposed President Trump’s trade war, allowing his opponent to label him a “Never Trumper” despite his strong pro-Trump voting record.
Sanford’s primary loss in 2018 is emblematic of the current state of the GOP. No matter how strong a candidate’s conservative record, any criticism of President Trump will get them labeled as a “Never Trumper,” which is the trendy new way attack a candidate’s character that has apparently replaced “RINO” since Trump, a long-time Democrat has assumed control of the Republican Party. As I said earlier, intellectual diversity is a rarity in today’s Republican Party.
Even though Sanford will have an uphill battle against the incumbent president, his primary campaign should be welcomed by Republicans. After Trump’s offensive tweets over the weekend, it should be obvious that the president has a problem with moderates and minorities. A USA Today/Ipsos poll found that 68 percent of Americans found Trump’s tweets offensive and 2018 exit polls showed that the GOP had lost ground among virtually every demographic. Further, the president’s trade war has eroded support in farm states that are typically solidly Republican as well as the Rust Belt states that propelled Trump to victory in 2016.
Mark Sanford gives Republicans a choice. If Sanford decides to run, Republican voters can opt between a candidate that preserves the best of Trump’s policy but who does not have the baggage of off-the-wall comments and the tariff war, which has almost completely offset the benefits of tax reform.
The problem for Sanford is that Republicans don’t necessarily want a conservative who is not controversial. A new Reuters poll found that Republican support for Trump increased by five points after his weekend tweetstorm. A March poll from Morning Consult found that only 20 percent of Republican primary voters said that they wanted a candidate other than Donald Trump.
Nevertheless, a Sanford candidacy would offer conservatives in the Republican Party an alternative to Trump. In contrast to 2016, when Republicans reluctantly accepted Trump in the general election out of necessity to defeat Hillary Clinton, if the party voluntarily embraces the president in the 2020 primary it will mean that Trump has fundamentally changed the nature of the Republican Party, perhaps irrevocably, from a conservative party to something else. Republican voters should at least have a choice in the direction of their party.
The Republican resistance to any challenger to Trump is indicative of the president’s weakness. The Republican establishment realizes that President Trump’s support is likely to be both shallow and fragile. They fear that a primary battle that shines the light on Trump’s personal flaws and poor record of achievement outside of tax reform and judicial appointments could expose the fundamental differences between the base that follows Trump’s personality and the traditional Republican conservatives who are more concerned with a principled platform. The illusion of party unity depends on no one questioning the president.
On the other hand, with Republican fortunes are tied to an increasingly unstable incumbent and Republican luminaries such as Rush Limbaugh embracing trillion-dollar deficits and proclaiming that fiscal conservatism is a thing of the past, the debate over the future of the Republican Party is not only necessary, it is long overdue. Reintroducing diversity of thought and holding an honest and serious debate about President Trump’s character and record can only strengthen a party that has been hemorrhaging voters since 2016. For that reason, conservatives should welcome a campaign by Mark Sanford even if it ultimately fails.