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Some cross Trump at their peril

Mark Sanford’s S.C. primary loss a lesson for GOP

Representative Mark Sanford hugged his sons after his defeat. The president called him “nothing but trouble.”
Wade Spees/Post And Courier via Associated Press
Representative Mark Sanford hugged his sons after his defeat. The president called him “nothing but trouble.”

WASHINGTON — Mark Sanford survived the fallout from his ‘‘hike’’ on the Appalachian Trail, but he couldn’t survive the backlash to his past criticisms of President Trump.

The South Carolina congressman, once seen as a credible contender for the presidency, lost the Republican primary on Tuesday in his bid for reelection to the House. He has opposed the president’s tariffs on steel and aluminum, called on Trump to release his income tax returns, and faulted him for ‘‘fanning the flames of intolerance.’’

‘‘It may have cost me an election in this case, but I stand by every one of those decisions to disagree with the president,’’ Sanford said during his concession speech.

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His challenger successfully framed the contest as a referendum on the president, and an eleventh-hour endorsement from Trump himself may have gotten her across the finish line. Katie Arrington, a state legislator, got 50.5 percent of the vote to Sanford’s 46.6 percent, beating him by a little more than 2,500 votes.

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‘‘We are the party of President Donald J. Trump,’’ she said in her victory speech.

This upset is the latest proof point that personal loyalty to Trump has become a litmus test in the GOP for anyone seeking public office. It also helps explain why so few Republicans have been willing to break with the president, even when he drifts far afield from conservative orthodoxy on trade, national security, and other issues.

And Sanford’s defeat is likely to have a chilling effect that deters GOP lawmakers who might otherwise be inclined to publicly speak out about Trump’s policy pronouncements or controversies of a more personal nature.

It took just six minutes after Air Force One touched down at Andrews, after a 23.5-hour journey back to Washington from his summit with Kim Jong Un in Singapore, for Trump to dance on Sanford’s political grave. While still sitting on the tarmac, the president tweeted:

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‘‘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!’’

Trump tweeted while polls were open on Tuesday that ‘‘Sanford has been very unhelpful to me in my campaign to (make America great again). He is MIA and nothing but trouble.’’ The president, despite being enmeshed in the Stormy Daniels saga, even took a jab at the sex scandal that ruined Sanford’s presidential ambitions.

‘‘He is better off in Argentina,’’ Trump tweeted, referring to where the then-South Carolina governor traveled in 2009 to visit his mistress when he announced he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. (Sanford’s wife at the time, Jenny, recently remarried.)

Another factor that might have played a role in the president’s last-minute tweet: One of Arrington’s consultants, Mike Biundo, worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Regardless of how it came about, no ambitious Republican wants to be the next Sanford, Jeff Flake, or Bob Corker — three Republicans who are leaving Congress at the end of the year as a result of disagreements with Trump. The two senators announced retirements rather than risk defeat in a primary. Historians may wind up treating these men as profiles in courage, but for now they’re cautionary tales.

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In Alabama, Republican Representative Martha Roby was forced into a runoff last week because the president’s supporters are still angry at her for saying Trump should drop out immediately after the ‘‘Access Hollywood’’ tape emerged in October 2016. Many don’t care that she’s been a reliable vote for the Trump agenda since he took office.

Even former rivals now go out of their way to emphasize support. Mitt Romney has embraced Trump to win a Republican primary for Senate in Utah, and Ted Cruz has become whatever the opposite of a Never Trumper is to get reelected in Texas.

Even Sanford tried to downplay his differences with Trump during the final days of the campaign. ‘‘I’ve supported the president 89 percent of the time,’’ Sanford said during a debate on Monday. ‘‘Talk to my brother and sister — I don’t agree with them 89 percent of the time!’’

Corker, the Republican senator from Tennessee who seems to feel more liberated because of his retirement, complained bitterly Tuesday when GOP leadership blocked consideration of an amendment he introduced that would let Congress overturn some of the president’s latest protectionist moves. The chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee criticized Republicans for being too afraid to ‘‘poke the bear’’ (a.k.a. Trump).

‘‘’Gosh, we might poke the bear’ is the language I’ve been hearing in the hallways,’’ Corker said in a floor speech. ‘‘We might poke the bear! The president might get upset with us as United States senators if we vote on the Corker amendment, so we’re going to do everything we can to block it.’’