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He's in: Mark Sanford, SC Republican, formally declares GOP White House 2020 bid

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U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford open to looking at ‘Charleston loophole’ (copy) (copy)

U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., File

Facing monumentally longshot odds, former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford announced Sunday he will challenge fellow Republican President Donald Trump for the White House, launching a campaign centered on Washington spending but also on where the party is headed.

The announcement came during a nationally televised in-studio appearance on "Fox News Sunday," the conservative-leaning news network Trump is known to watch regularly.

"I think we need to have a conversation on what it means to be a Republican. I think that as a Republican Party, we have lost our way," Sanford said in his interview with Chris Wallace in Washington.

The former Charleston congressman has been privately considering a presidential bid since he left office in January and has been publicly exploring its viability for the last 54 days.

He is basing his run on a warning that the Republican Party is at an "inflection point" after three years of the Trump presidency, though he is making attention to the ballooning national debt his focal point.

"We need to have a conversation about humility," Sanford also said during the interview as he noted Trump's penchant for commenting by tweet "is not leadership."

Sanford knows he is facing overwhelming odds of success in a race where most polls give the president an overwhelming approval rating among party diehards.

"I'm saying 'you never know,' " he said, and that "this is the beginning of a long walk, but it begins with a first step.”

With his entrance into the race, Sanford, 59, becomes the third GOP candidate to formally challenge the president in the 2020 contest. The two other candidates are former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld and former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh.

All face mammoth odds, but their quixotic efforts stand to make an impact on the 2020 election. Even as national polls show Trump enjoys the support of most GOP voters, this trio of campaigns could amplify the concerns of Republicans who say their party is in need of a course correction.

There are already roadblocks to their path. South Carolina Republicans voted Saturday not to hold a presidential primary next year. Arizona, Kansas and Nevada are opting out as well, according to media reports. 

Since leaving Congress in January after losing the 2018 GOP primary to Trump ally Katie Arrington, Sanford said he has been quietly mulling whether to run for the nation's highest office. Once he took his idea public, Sanford then sought to gather advice and, as he put it, "data points" about whether he has any path forward.

He traveled to Iowa and New Hampshire, two early states that play a pronounced role in the presidential nomination process. While there, he sought the advice of trusted conservative political operatives rather than holding public events.

One of those private meetings was with Fergus Cullen, a former New Hampshire GOP chairman.

Cullen, who wants to see a Republican primary, told The Post and Courier he encouraged Sanford to run after they spoke. Like Sanford, Cullen fears the Republican Party he knew is gone. Cullen said he worries that being fiscally conservative, in favor of limited government, and supportive of free trade are no longer GOP priorities.

"I spend a lot of time these days thinking about what happens after Trump," Cullen said. "How does the Republican Party rebuild in an image that is not the Trump Party? And how do we credibly go to voters after all of this is said and done and say: 'Trust us. Give us another chance.' "

"Part of that means it's necessary for many of us to have clean hands and be able to say we weren't with Trump during the peak of Trump," he added.

In both Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanford will at least have the opportunity to see how voters respond to his message. The Des Moines Register reports Republican leaders are reminding GOP voters that they will be holding a caucus. In New Hampshire there's just a $1,000 filing fee to get on the 2020 GOP ballot.

In an interview Sunday morning with The Post and Courier, Sanford said he won't spend as much time campaigning in South Carolina because a GOP primary is off the table. 

Jim Merrill, (not the former S.C. state lawmaker), who was Mitt Romney's former campaign manager in New Hampshire in 2008 and 2012, said Sanford might find a more receptive audience even if the New Hampshire GOP voters ultimately go for Trump in the end.

However, the realities of running a campaign against an incumbent president and at this point in the political cycle present their own set of challenges.

"You'd have to be creative. You'd have to run a really creative guerrilla campaign with a lot of spit and baling wire and gumption," Merrill said. 

Sanford said he hopes to begin hiring staff this week. He is doing media appearances in Washington and New York for the next couple days before returning to South Carolina.

He said his first goal is specific, measurable and achievable: Create a debate within the Republican Party and on the national level about how much is being spent, and how much debt is accumulating. After that, the goals broaden. 

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"You go beyond that. To what degree could you have electoral consequence such that you maybe win? And then, what can you do and what would you do? My only point," Sanford said, before winding up to one of his favorite sayings, "is you can never say never in the world of politics." 

In Iowa, Sanford is expected to face some steep odds, according to University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle.

"The problem for Sanford is that you're coming up against an incumbent president, and at a time when Democrats are very energized. The Democrats don't have a nominee but they definitely want to beat Trump. Taking a chance on somebody when it's not an open election situation is probably going to be worrisome for a lot of Republicans," Hagle said.

Hagle said Sanford's baggage is sure to surface.

"Then again, Sanford may not be the best person to deliver that message right now," he said. "I've seen a few people mention Sanford, and when they do, they say, 'Is he the Appalachian Trail guy?'"

Hagle said it would take a "huge crash" in the economy or a sharp economic downturn to get people paying attention to conservative alternatives to Trump.

A pair of campaign-style videos Sanford released during his two months of public deliberation preview the kind of message he's trying to sell: Heavy focus on a commitment to fiscal issues, with a subtle swipe over leadership differences when necessary.

In one video, Sanford criticized the current administration for its spending practices, specifically taking a jab at the July Fourth celebration in Washington that cost an estimated $5.4 million.

In the other, Sanford voiced frustration that fiscal accountability is not a greater priority, and warned Republicans and Democrats who ignore it do so at their own peril.

In many ways, the message echoes the message that first made voters send him to Congress in 1994.

Then a political unknown who handed out fake billion-dollar bills on the campaign trail to highlight the federal debt, Sanford would go on to represent South Carolina's coastal 1st Congressional District for three terms.

Then, in 2002, he was elected governor of South Carolina, a position he held for eight years.

While governor, he was considered a conservative favorite for the presidency based on his rising profile as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. He became a household name when he rejected President Barack Obama's stimulus funding in 2009.

But his time as governor was overshadowed by his 2009 extramarital affair, in which he told an aide he was “hiking the Appalachian Trail” when he was, in fact, in Argentina.

In a deep dive into Sanford's background and career, The Post and Courier described his spectacular political collapse and his drive for redemption in the 2013 congressional race, which he won.

The only race Sanford has lost in his political career was his 2018 GOP primary against Arrington, a vocal Trump supporter who got the president's endorsement on the rainy primary election day.

In a late-afternoon tweet, Trump asked state voters to replace Sanford with Arrington, going so far as to say Sanford is "better off in Argentina."

Despite them both being Republicans who had an early interest in real estate, Trump and Sanford have had a contentious relationship fraught with public feuding.

Sanford was one of two Republicans to sign a letter calling on Trump to release his tax returns. He also publicly criticized the president for his stances on opening Atlantic waters to coastal drilling, tariffs and even more pointedly, the president's often caustic behavior toward foes.

Trump has famously — and repeatedly — taken aim at Sanford, often for his affair.

The president sought to make fun of Sanford in an Aug. 27 tweet by calling him "Mr. Appalachian Trail." Trump also referred to Weld, Walsh and Sanford as "the Three Stooges" and mocked the idea of facing any Republican challenger.

Sanford said his race versus Trump is not personal.

Sanford's leftover congressional account shows he has $1.35 million. All of it can be used for his 2020 presidential campaign.

With his declaration, Sanford becomes the second South Carolina Republican to seek the White House in the two recent cycles: U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham launched a bid four years ago that failed to gain traction and lasted only a few months.

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

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.

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