Two months ago, former South Carolina governor and congressman Mark Sanford launched what he acknowledged was a long shot primary challenge to President Donald Trump, in the hopes of sparking "a real conversation on debt and deficits and government spending." After 60 days of a national conversation about everything but, Sanford this afternoon put an end to his experiment in competitive fiscal conservatism.
While it's true that the House impeachment inquiry is dominating national political conversation, there's no evidence to suggest that Republicans (let alone campaign reporters) would otherwise be focusing on fiscal issues. The federal deficit in the just-completed fiscal year hit $984 billion, without any meaningful resistance from Sanford's former colleauges in the House Freedom Caucus.
Trump, who Sanford has been calling the "king of debt," has been systematically wiping out any hint of internal GOP competition. The South Carolina GOP canceled its third-in-the-nation primaries under heavy pressure from the Trump campaign literally the day before Sanford entered the race (the decision is being litigated). A half-dozen state Republican Party machines have already effectively declared their 2020 winners.
Such leg-sweeping tactics, in addition to the president's considerable popularity among Republicans (among whom his approval rating has not dipped below 87 percent all year), has led to some brutal disparities between the candidates. The Trump campaign and Republican National Committee (whose organizations have been unprecedentedly merged) raised a combined $125.7 million in the third quarter, compared to Sanford's $60,400. That's a ratio of 2,111 to 1.
Sanford has fared little better in the polls. The RealClearPolitics national polling average has the president with more than an 80-point lead: 85.4 percent, compared to 2.6 percent for former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, 2.2 percent for former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh, and 1.8 percent for Sanford.
"Mark Sanford's voice in the primaries will be missed," Weld said in a statement Tuesday. "A true fiscal conservative, he has advocated the common sense policies too seldom heard from Donald Trump or anyone else in Washington. It is shameful that the Trump-controlled South Carolina state party cancelled a primary in which Mark could have been a real factor."
So Sanford has gone from being a lonely Trump critic in the House GOP, to loser of a GOP primary to a Trump-backed candidate for his seat (which is now held by a Democrat), to long shot presidential challenger, to Republican roadkill. Might now be a time to seek a political party that shares his concern about the national debt and looming entitlement bomb?
I asked six Libertarian Party presidential candidates 10 days ago to name any major-party candidate then running for president who they'd most like see switch to the L.P. Only one—former 1996 vice presidential nominee and South Carolina resident Jo Jorgensen—named Sanford, saying: "Mark Sanford acted like a Libertarian through most of his political career, and a lot of people here were big fans even after his horrible indiscretion—the people of this state still elected him back to Congress. He's libertarian at heart, and while I commend Tulsi Gabbard for her good no-war stance, everything else about her is just wrong. I don't see any other libertarian leanings in her, but I do see many libertarian leanings in Mark Sanford."
While Sanford certainly has more political name recognition than any of the dozen or so declared Libertarian presidential candidates, he would (if at all interested) face the same skepticism that would greet any GOP-switcher. After three successive presidential nominations given to formerly elected Republicans, Libertarians are wary about going to that particular well a fourth consecutive time.
Whatever he decides to do with his own future, Sanford's parting message about ours is both sobering and necessary in 2019 America:
I am suspending my race for the Presidency because impeachment has made my goal of making the debt, deficit and spending issue a part of this presidential debate impossible right now. From day one, I was fully aware of how hard it would be to elevate these issues with a sitting president of my own party ignoring them. Impeachment noise has moved what was hard to herculean as nearly everything in Republican party politics is currently viewed through the prism of impeachment.
This is hardly a lens through which I want to look at things as I believe the debate of ideas is vital for both the conservative movement and for the American voter. What's needed here is simply a national conversation on whether or not we believe in math. Ours does not add up in Washington and continued denial here could end the American civilization and the dreams that come with it. Unfortunately, with impeachment the wagons are circled, tribes and allegiances are declared and this obliterates the chance to debate and address a host of critical issues.
More than anything we need a debate about our debt and how we pay for this political season's many grand promises and the ones already accumulated in Washington. We also need a robust debate on trade and tariffs, our belief in institutions, the President's tone and a whole lot more, but those things will not happen in a Republican primary embattled with impeachment.
Finally, I would like to thank the people of New Hampshire and people from across this country for the conversations we have had on the need for financial sanity. It's my hope and intention to find new ways to raise and elevate these vital themes.