Trump Critic Rejected by Republican Voters in South Carolina

(Bloomberg) -- Republican voters in South Carolina ousted Representative Mark Sanford in the state’s GOP primary Tuesday in a contest that turned into a test of loyalty to President Donald Trump.

Trump launched a pointedly personal attack on Sanford just hours before polls closed. The incumbent, a frequent critic of the president, lost to state legislator Katie Arrington, who vowed to be more supportive of Trump if elected to the House in November. With 99 percent of precincts reporting, she had 50.6 percent of the vote to Sanford’s 46.5 percent.

The startling defeat for the three-term congressman and former governor demonstrates the grip Trump has on GOP voters, and comes one week after Representative Martha Roby, an Alabama Republican who also had criticized Trump, was forced into a runoff.

Still, another Trump supporter who had the president’s endorsement, incumbent South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster, was forced into a runoff with John Warren, the founder and chief executive officer of Lima One Capital, a mortgage finance company, in a five-way Republican primary. State Representative James Smith won the Democratic nomination for governor.

As voters made their primary choices in five states, South Carolina wasn’t the only place where Republicans favored conservatives who are seen as closely tied to Trump and his agenda. The GOP Senate nominee in Virginia, Corey Stewart, has underscored his efforts to combat illegal immigration and is a champion of Confederate symbols. He’ll face Senator Tim Kaine, the Democratic incumbent.

Women Win

In both parties, a dominant theme was the continued emergence of female candidates. In Virginia, Democrats nominated women in six of the seven U.S. House districts now in Republican hands, including four that will figure prominently in this fall’s broader battle for control of the House. Including Arrington in South Carolina, at least 14 women emerged as nominees in states that also included Maine, North Dakota and Nevada.

Sanford, who’s won every election race he’s run since first seeking a House seat in 1994, is a reliably conservative Republican and usually votes for Trump’s legislative agenda. But he has accused the president of contributing to the coarsening of the national political discourse, and that turned the primary into a test of whether loyalty to Trump is more important to Republican voters than a lawmaker’s record.

In broadcast remarks to supporters on Tuesday night, Arrington said, “We are the party of President Donald J. Trump.”

Trump congratulated Arrington in a tweet early Wednesday upon his return to Washington from meetings in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The president took note of his last-minute intervention in the race.

“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. Congrats to Katie Arrington!” the president wrote.

Trump had weighed in on the contest via Twitter the previous day while on his way back from Singapore. The president made reference to a scandal that engulfed Sanford in 2009. Then the South Carolina governor, Sanford disappeared from the state and later admitted he was with an Argentinian woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair.

“Mark Sanford has been very unhelpful to me in my campaign to MAGA. He is MIA and nothing but trouble,” Trump wrote in a tweet Tuesday afternoon, less than three hours before polls closed in South Carolina. “He is better off in Argentina. I fully endorse Katie Arrington for Congress in SC, a state I love. She is tough on crime and will continue our fight to lower taxes. VOTE Katie!”

In an interview with Politico last year, Sanford said Trump had “fanned the flames of intolerance” and called him unprepared for the presidency. In an ad released last month, Arrington mockingly alluded to Sanford’s past infidelity and vowed to go to Washington to “get things done, not to go on CNN to bash President Trump.”

Sanford said those statements “may have cost me an election in this case, but I stand by every one of those decisions to disagree with the president.”

Perhaps sensing he was in political trouble, Sanford started running broadcast television ads in early May and continued until the primary.

He ran a total of 1,125 spots in the district’s two biggest television markets at an estimated cost of $187,700, according to data from Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks political advertising. Arrington started running TV ads about the same time and put 1,255 spots on the air at an estimated cost of $172,750.

Some of the other notable races were taking place in Virginia, where Democrats are seeking to capture some of the 23 Republican seats they would need to reclaim the majority in the U.S. House.

Virginia Races

State Senator Jennifer Wexton won the Democratic nomination in the state’s 10th district, which includes parts of Northern Virginia. She’ll face off against Republican Representative Barbara Comstock, who won her third term in 2016 by six points in a district that overwhelmingly backed Hillary Clinton.

In the state’s Second Congressional District, which includes the Hampton Roads region, Democrat Elaine Luria was the declared winner over rival Karen Mallard with 95 percent of the vote tallied. Luria, a Navy veteran and businesswoman, was her party’s pick in the contest for the seat held by Republican Representative Scott Taylor, who’s a former Navy SEAL.

And in suburban Richmond’s Seventh District, former Central Intelligence Agency officer Abigail Spanberger was declared the winner for the Democratic nomination, setting the stage for a fall campaign against GOP Representative David Brat. A member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, Brat, then a college professor, upended the political career of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014’s GOP primary.

Senate Contest

In the state’s U.S. Senate contest, conservative activist Stewart will face a tough general election campaign against Kaine, a former governor and Clinton’s running mate in 2016, who was unopposed in the Democratic primary.

Stewart, who fended off two GOP rivals for the nomination, is a member of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. On his website he vows to “defeat political correctness, protect Virginia’s history, crack down on illegal immigration, and stand up to the Washington elites.”

Also on Tuesday, voters nominated challengers to two of this year’s most vulnerable Senate incumbents. Democrats in Nevada chose Representative Jacky Rosen, a first-term lawmaker and member of the centrist Problem Solvers Caucus, to challenge GOP Senator Dean Heller. In North Dakota, GOP Representative Kevin Cramer was declared the party’s primary winner, setting him up to run against Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp.

Heller’s state is Democrat-leaning and was narrowly won by Clinton in 2016, while Heitkamp’s is dominated by Republicans and voted overwhelmingly for Trump. Both are seeking re-election after having won in 2012 by just one percentage point. Control of the Senate, now held 51-49 by Republicans, could turn on how they fare in the elections less than five months away.

Cramer is in his third term representing North Dakota’s at-large congressional district, giving him strong name recognition and a track record of being elected to statewide office. The only public poll so far in the race, a Feb. 21-24 Gravis Marketing survey, found Heitkamp barely leading, 43 percent to 40 percent, among registered voters in the state.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.