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Mark Sanford lost his seat, but not his honor

Mark Sanford speaks with supporters on primary day in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., on June 12.Hunter McRae/New York Times

The cult of Donald Trump has claimed its next victim.

Mark Sanford spoke ill of the president, and banishment was his fate.

The Republican congressman from South Carolina lost his primary race to Kate Arrington, a one-term state lawmaker who, according to the Charleston Post and Courier, "made loyalty to the president the centerpiece of her campaign."

She reaped her reward a few hours before the polls closed. Fresh from his embrace of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, the president tweeted that Sanford was "very unhelpful to me in my campaign to MAGA," and added, "He is better off in Argentina." That was a snarky reference to Sanford's adulterous affair when he was governor, in 2009, from a president who has been identified as an alleged adulterer. But no shame, no gain. Because, as Arrington put it at her victory party, "We are the party of Donald J. Trump."

Make that cult, according to Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee. No wonder Mitt Romney, who once called Trump a fake and a con man, now embraces the Trump presidency as he runs a primary race for a Senate seat in Utah. The president and his party are in lockstep. In Republican strongholds, a Never Trumper is doomed for extinction. Even in Massachusetts, where the Republican Party represents a mere 10 percent of all registered voters, Republican Governor Charlie Baker walks a line when it comes to Trump. After all, Trump did get 33 percent of the Bay State vote in 2016.


Running against Trump cost Sanford his seat in Congress. But the ending isn't all bad for him, because it allows his transformation from cheating husband to principled politician. And for that he should be grateful.

Sanford's infidelity became national news in 2009, when the then-married governor held a tearful and pathetic press conference declaring his love for a girlfriend in Argentina. His public confession came after Sanford disappeared from the governor's office, and a spokesman said he was "hiking the Appalachian Trail," when he was actually visiting his mistress. In a book written after their marriage officially fell apart, Jenny Sanford revealed a husband so self-obsessed that his first call after that infamous news conference was to her, asking, "How'd I do?"


Sanford ignored calls from fellow Republicans that he step down as governor and served out his term. Politics should have been over for him. But in 2013, he won a special congressional election that enabled him to write his second act. And Trump helped him do it. In 2016, Sanford endorsed Trump as the party's nominee, but in an op-ed for The New York Times, called upon him to release his taxes. Trump, of course, ignored him. Sanford got more outspoken in his criticisms, at one point saying the president should "just shut up." He also questioned Trump's call for tariffs.

Arrington made such criticisms of Trump a central point of her campaign. During a radio debate, she said, "You can't have a seat at the table in the Oval Office, because you have offended the president numerous times." She also snidely attacked his past unfaithfulness. "Mark Sanford and the career politicians cheated on us," an Arrington commercial declared. "Bless his heart, but it's time for Mark Sanford to take a hike — for real this time."


In the end, Sanford lost his seat, but not his honor. He cheated on his wife, but he didn't cheat on his country.

He spoke the truth about Trump. And in a Republican primary, that was a recipe for exile and a warning to others.

Abandon hope, all ye Republicans who dare to challenge the cult of Trump.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.