Sanford Arrington (copy) (copy)

U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford and GOP primary challenger Katie Arrington.

Katie Arrington wants voters to know she plans to get a seat at the table with President Donald Trump.

The Summerville Republican who is running for Congress said she can already see herself in Washington bending his ear on infrastructure, offering suggestions to streamline federal spending and helping him build the border wall.

She brushes off the fact that her political experience begins and ends with one term in the Statehouse. "Tim Scott only had one term," Arrington fires back. 

Then, the 47-year-old pivots back to what has been the crux of her campaign: "Mark Sanford alienates people in Washington; therefore, we pay for it down here. I know I can do better."

But can a Trump supporter beat a familiar fiscal hawk?

Republican voters in South Carolina's 1st Congressional District will get to decide in the June 12 GOP primary. Dimitri Cherny will also appear on the GOP ballot, but the Bernie Sanders supporter admits his third congressional bid is meant to bring attention to gerrymandering. Ideologically, he does not align with the Republican Party.

Meanwhile Sanford and Arrington are both Republican faithfuls, but their ideas about how to best serve the district that spans from Hilton Head Island to McClellanville could not be more different.

Sanford, 57, still puts reining in federal spending at the top of his priorities. The state's former governor cites out-of-control spending as his passionate issue. His website still displays a real-time tracker of the national debt.

Addressing attendees at a Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity event in Charleston last month, Sanford stressed the country must get its financial house in order.

"If something cannot go on forever, it will stop," Sanford said, invoking the law made famous by American economist Herbert Stein who served as an economic adviser to Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

It's a platform he has run on since his first stint in Congress in the 1990s when he was a political unknown with a background in real estate. But fortune has smiled on Sanford: he has never lost an election.

Matt Moore, the former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party who got his start in state politics working for Sanford in the governor's office, said he does not see Sanford's streak ending in the age of Trump.

"When it comes to President Trump, most voters are so highly informed that they realize it's just politics. Politics is so personality-driven and Mark Sanford has always been a leader defined by his personality. Voters give him the benefit of the doubt," Moore said.

They also give Sanford money. Federal Election Commission filings show Sanford holds a hefty financial lead over his challengers, with $1.7 million cash on hand. Arrington had $387,000 as of March 31. 

On other issues, Sanford is outspoken about the Trump administration's plans to open up the South Carolina coastline to offshore drilling. 

But Arrington, his main challenger, contends the issue in this election is Trump, period.

"When I talk to the voters, they want to know are you for him or against him. That's what they want," Arrington said.

But the chance to work in the U.S. House is what she wants, too. "Always," Arrington said of how long she has wanted to serve in the lower chamber of Congress, adding, "Those guys are the worker bees."

Sign up for updates!

Get the latest political news from The Post and Courier in your inbox.


Arrington would have run for the seat sooner but said her mentors urged her to first gain some political experience. That led to a 2016 run and win for state House District 94.

Arrington grew up in upstate New York but has lived in Summerville since 2001. Despite having never obtained a college degree, Arrington's background runs the gamut, from operating a daycare for special-needs children on Army bases to working in the private sector defense industry. She credits God for putting her "in the right place at the right time."

If elected, Arrington has pledged accept a salary of $52,000 — the average annual salary of a district resident — and would donate the rest to charities in the district. Members of Congress earn $174,000 a year. She said she would also forgo congressional health care or retirement packages and limit herself to four terms, or eight years.

Arrington claims she's not a political climber, asserting she has no aspirations to be a U.S. senator or a governor. She's also not been afraid to broach Sanford's biggest embarrassment: his 2009 disappearance from the state to be with his mistress that created the euphemism "Hiking the Appalachian Trail."

"How does this guy represent our community? He cheated on his wife on the national stage and left his post. What kind of wacko — I'm sorry — is so totally disenchanted and disengaged with his community to think that's OK?" she said of the trip that became part of a recent TV ad.

She's additionally highlighting the fact other Republicans have turned on Sanford as well. Statehouse leaders House Speaker Jay Lucas and House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, who served under then-Gov. Sanford, are backing her congressional run, as is North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey.

"I think she could be an asset in getting help from Washington for the Lowcountry," North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey told The Post and Courier when he announced his endorsement for the newcomer over the incumbent.

 Sanford is undeterred.

"A lot of folks in politics are so skillful verbally that they can sort of talk their way through anything," he said. "I don't have that. The one thing I've always had is conviction."

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.