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How Katie Arrington beat Mark Sanford: It was only partially the Trump tweet

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Katie Arrington hugs00.jpg

Katie Arrington hugs supporters after she defeated U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel for Katie Arrington's results party on Tuesday, June 12, 2018 in North Charleston. Andrew Whitaker/Staff

Republican Katie Arrington won't call herself an opportunist — she prefers the term "hard worker" — but in the case of South Carolina's 1st Congressional District, she saw an opening and took it.

And then, somehow, she won it.

In her first-ever congressional bid, Arrington beat Mark Sanford, a political icon who until Tuesday had never lost an election.

She was an underdog from the start and, in some ways, Sanford's political opposite. 

Where his experience spanned decades, hers was limited to one term in the Statehouse.

Where his campaign war chest burst with $1.57 million before the GOP primary, hers held less than $200,000.

And, most of all, where Sanford openly criticized Donald Trump, Arrington pledged her loyalty to the president.

In the end, it was Arrington and her savvy Trump-aligned campaign that led to Sanford uttering the words no one at the onset of this race ever thought he would say: "I think I'll end up losing this election."

Arrington watched Sanford's historic loss on a TV in the back room of a North Charleston hotel. Then, she heard her supporters in the nearby ballroom erupt. Her political fight now heads into the Nov. 6 general election against Democrat Joe Cunningham.

How she, a 4-foot 11-inch conservative, defeated a Goliath in South Carolina politics, came down to grass-roots campaigning, consistent and early messaging, and a last-minute endorsement from the president.

She also had help from Michael Biundo, a senior adviser to Trump's campaign and co-founder of RightVoter, a political consulting firm. Biundo and his firm's partner, Andrew Boucher of Charleston, were general consultants for Arrington.

From the start of her campaign, Arrington tapped into something that Sanford, though well-versed in politics, had failed to realize: Loyalty to Trump is the singular litmus test for what it means to be a Republican in 2018.

Everything else is just noise.

"The people of the 1st Congressional District wanted change first," Arrington said the day after her win. "The Trump factor absolutely played a role in this race, but it was the way Congressman Sanford was dealing with his opposition to President Trump that was more the issue than Trump."

Her primary victory over Sanford was closer than it appears.

Arrington bested Sanford with 50.5 percent of the vote to his 46.5 percent. Dimitri Cherny, the third candidate on the Republican ballot, pulled in the rest of the vote despite running as a Democrat in previous races.

But calculated another way, the margin between Arrington's outright victory and avoiding a runoff with Sanford was determined by just 366 votes cast her way.

Boucher, who joined the campaign in January, credits the late-afternoon presidential tweet endorsement for getting Arrington over the 50 percent-mark she needed to avoid a runoff.

"On a rainy Election Day, the news of the Trump endorsement spread like wildfire. And so, I have to believe there were at least 366 people who otherwise would have gone home and had dinner with their families, and instead went to the polls to vote for Katie," Boucher said.

As a state lawmaker, Arrington had a calendar advantage over her opponent, too.

While Sanford was stuck in Washington with a schedule of often mundane roll call votes, the state legislative session ended in early May. That gave Arrington more time to make her pitch to voters in the coastal 1st District 24/7.

One area where that extra face-time paid off was in Beaufort County, where she won by 11 percentage points despite its long-held status as a Sanford stronghold since Beaufort is home to Coosaw Plantation, the Sanford family farm.

Richard Geraghty, vice chair of the Beaufort Republican Party, said Arrington offered GOP voters in this region something new.

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"I have a lot of respect for Mark Sanford, but I think that people kept saying, 'You know, he goes to Washington, he says the things we want to see get done, but they never get done,'" Geraghty said. "We know how he voted, but nothing has changed for the better."

But there was a duality, too. Despite frustration, Geraghty admits Sanford remains a popular figure.

"If he went to any event down here, he would be welcomed and cheered," he said.

Boucher, one of Arrington's campaign consultants with Right Voter, said he was hesitant when Arrington's campaign manager Michael Mule first approached him about working on the race.

"It was a big leap of faith for us to step out against a Republican incumbent member of the United States Congress. When we do that, it's not something we would ever take lightly," Boucher said. "But then, after meeting Katie, that sealed it for me."

Boucher said the campaign set out on executing a four-step strategy: Introduce Arrington to voters. Get voters wondering if she could win. Convince voters she can win. And, finally, get people voting for her on June 12.

One of her most famous ads in the campaign came in early May, when she told Sanford to "take a hike." The 30-second spot was a personal jab at Sanford's 2009 extramarital affair that became forever tied to the euphemism "hiking the Appalachian Trail." 

Trump would echo Arrington's messaging when he endorsed her on Election Day and tweeted, "He is better off in Argentina."

Boucher said that pointed ad was pivotal in showing voters who Arrington was in an admittedly fierce election battle.

"If you’re trying to make the case for her being David in a David and Goliath story, you need to know David is fearless and willing to charge into that. The most important message of that ad was she was fearless and she can win this," he said.

Early on, internal polling conducted by the Arrington campaign showed Sanford with 40 percent support. 

The last internal polling the campaign conducted had Arrington and Sanford in the 30s, with more undecideds swinging her way, Boucher said. That was in the second week in May. At that point, Arrington knew a path to victory was not only possible, but a real possibility.

The last two weeks leading up to the GOP primary, Sanford ran a pair of negative attacks ads about Arrington. Her campaign feared how much it would impact their candidate. But, in the end, the double-ad buy wasn't enough.

The day before her historic win, Arrington hosted a pizza party for her volunteers at the Mellow Mushroom in Summerville. It was raining just hard enough to bring traffic to a snarl on the interstate as Arrington drove to the event. 

She called her campaign manager from the car.

"We're all here," he told her.

"What, like, 10 people?" she said.

But when Arrington arrived, some 75 volunteers were chanting her name. She smiled, now running through the downpour in her wedge heels and red raincoat.

Once out of the rain and under the outdoor pavilion, she pulled back the hood of her jacket and, unable to contain her excitement, leapt into the air four times. Her delight manifested itself in a sharp little twist each time she jumped. 

She then hugged her supporters as she made her way to an open spot to address her team.

"This crowd will get what nobody else gets," Arrington said to the group, unable to hide the tears flickering in her eyes. "Without you, this dream wouldn't have happened."

Her campaign manager looked on, nodding his head. He wore a red baseball cap that said "Make America Great Again."

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590. Follow her on Twitter at @MaryCaitlinByrd.

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