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'It's like emotional torture': The day Mark Sanford lost it all

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Mark Sanford conceding with sons nearby.jpg

U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford paused to look at his notes while speaking with supporters — including his sons Blake (from left), Bolton, Marshall and Landon — as he conceded the primary race to state Rep. Katie Arrington in Tuesday's S.C. Republican primary. The election night event was at Liberty Taproom in Mount Pleasant on June 12, 2018. Wade Spees/Staff

It's been an emotional week for Mark Sanford.

He began processing his first electoral defeat Tuesday night surrounded by his four sons at Mount Pleasant's Liberty Tap Room, the very place where in 2013 Sanford celebrated his surprise return to politics after a nation questioned whether South Carolina could ever forgive the "Luv Guv" for his public sins.

But nearly three hours after polls closed this time, Sanford quietly left his victory party carrying a legal pad and pen. He walked upstairs and wrote his first concession speech.

He re-emerged at 10:36 p.m. He stood at a podium two minutes later, facing his supporters and the media while members of his staff wept.

"The last great Republican just fell," said Rouzy Vafaie, a Sanford supporter and second vice-chair of the Charleston County Republican Party.

Since then, Sanford's phone keeps lighting up with emails, phone calls and texts, into the thousands. Each one hit an emotional core.

"It's like emotional torture," he told his son Marshall.

"With this kind of loss, you get the eulogy that comes without real death," Sanford said.

As the week wore on, routine moments became reminders of what he's leaving behind.

The annual congressional baseball game Thursday night between Republicans and Democrats, morphed from American pastime to bittersweet moment for Sanford, who for years had told himself, "I’ll play next year."

There won't be a next year.

"Everyone is coming up to you as if you've been killed. What many elected officials fear the most in life is getting beat. I've never feared it," Sanford said.

Katie Arrington, whose nickname in the S.C. Statehouse was "the pitbull," was the one who out-hustled "the comeback kid" in winning the 1st District GOP nomination. She edged Sanford by 2,660 votes out of nearly 85,500 cast.

While he won in Charleston County, she beat him in his own backyard in Beaufort County — home to Bluffton, Hilton Head Island and thousands of conservative retirees who make up a good chunk of the coastal district's demographics. 

And then there was the fatal blow to the Sanford era: Donald Trump's popularity along the coast proved more powerful than Sanford's steadfast ideas about conservatism.

Arrington had embraced Trump repeatedly; Sanford didn't. A late-afternoon election day tweet from the president backing Arrington helped seal Sanford's fate. It was forecast a year ago when Trump conveyed to Sanford through Mick Mulvaney, a former S.C. congressman and current White House budget chief, he wanted Sanford out and would back whoever ran against him.

Only in retrospect did Sanford see the magnitude of his misstep.

"The politics are easy: Pledge allegiance to Donald Trump. But I think that's a mistake on a soul level," he said on MSNBC on Thursday.

Rob Godfrey, a former top campaign aide to Gov. Nikki Haley, said Sanford suffered in Beaufort County where thousands of new voters have moved in since the 1990s, many only seeing a Trump critic.

"They don't know his history," Godfrey said, "and really he is a congressman built for this region."

The final pitch

The day before his defeat, Sanford addressed about 50 Republican faithfuls in Mount Pleasant at the Harbor Breeze Restaurant. Arrington accused him of being a career politician who would not support Trump. Sanford reminded voters he would stand up for their interests in Washington, like opposing offshore drilling — an area where he disagrees with the president.

A cardboard cutout of Trump giving two thumbs-up stood nearby.

"I'm not a career politician. I still think of myself as a business guy lost in the world of politics," Sanford said afterward.

On primary day, Sanford drove himself around the district in a mud-flecked black Chevy Suburban. His eight stops in seven hours totaled 77 miles. 

Asked if he felt confident about his chances that day, Sanford demurred. "I think confident is too strong a word."

Sanford checking

Mark Sanford and son Marshall monitor results on supporter Rouzy Vafaie's phone at Liberty Taproom in Mount Pleasant Tuesday June 12, 2018. Wade Spees/Staff 

At each stop someone always called him Mark. At Jim 'N Nick's BBQ in North Charleston, he told Justine Tye he does still sleep in his congressional office. At Ye Ole Fashioned Ice Cream & Sandwich Cafe in Goose Creek, Barbara Bates recalled when Sanford in 2004 famously brought two kicking and squealing piglets to the Statehouse to protest pork in the state budget.

The only time the Appalachian Trail came up was in Summerville, when Sanford walked into Groucho's Deli. There he faced three Katie Arrington supporters.

"Good to see you on the trail, Mark — the campaign trail, that is," said Thomas Mule, whose brother, Michael, was Arrington's campaign manager.

The Appalachian Trail jab referenced when Sanford, while governor, was caught having an extramarital affair after his office lied and said he was "hiking the Appalachian Trail."

Sanford shook his hand anyway.

"Every election has its own rhythm," he said. "And given the times we live in, I think that win, lose, or draw, this election solicits a level of energy and emotion that I've not seen in some of the other races I've been a part of or watched," he said.

A lengthy tenure

Sanford, 58, first entered the political arena when he was 34. It was 1994. He had a background in real estate and a deep belief in Newt Gingrich's Contract with America. 

His hair was chestnut brown then. Now it's fading to gray. He jokes he was "Tea Party before the Tea Party was cool."

But times have changed.

"The straw hats that I was selling weren't the straw hats people were buying in this political season," he said.

Sanford and sisier

Mark Sanford and sister Sarah Rauch monitor results at Liberty Taproom in Mount Pleasant Tuesday June 12, 2018. Wade Spees/Staff

Asked about what he was most proud of during his time in Congress, Sanford first lists his 100 percent rating in 2016 from Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group that annually ranks lawmakers on their fiscal voting records.

From his time as governor, he still touts how he cut the state's income taxes on small businesses from 7 percent to 5 percent, as well as cutting Department of Motor Vehicles wait-time from 66 minutes to 15.

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"It's like reading through chapters of your life," Sanford said.

But some chapters of Sanford's political rise were punctuated with embarrassing passages, both political and personal.

Five years after his tearful 2009 press conference in which he confessed he had been unfaithful to his wife, Sanford said he was ending his relationship with Maria Belen Chapur, the Argentine woman who had been his mistress and later become his fiancee. 

He announced their split in a public, rambling — and since-deleted — 2,346-word Facebook post. 

Chapur would tell the New York Times she learned about the post from the newspapers and not directly from the man she had once called "my beloved" in their emailed love letters.

Other gaffes were less egregious. 

A routine workout on Capitol Hill turned into Sanford sprinting to the House for a vote in 2013. With no time to change, he arrived wearing a sweat-soaked T-shirt, gym shorts and sneakers. Sanford quickly donned a suit jacket supplied to him by an aide before entering the legislative chamber. 

Sanford now wonders what will happen when he leaves Washington for good. He worries his electoral loss isn't so much about his defeat as it is the loss of Republican conservative values in the age of Trump.

"This idea of an allegiance test, a loyalty question, to a person is at odds with the traditions that have served our country incredibly well for 200 years," he said.

Is there another comeback?

Sanford admits his career should have ended after he abandoned the state as governor in 2009 for the Argentina trip.

He embarrassed the state, himself, his family and supporters, and created the famous euphemism "hiking the Appalachian Trail" for the false explanation of his days-long disappearance. But he went on a contrition tour, and, less than two years later, won back his 1st Congressional District seat that had become open when Tim Scott went from the House to the Senate.

Sanford defeated a dozen other Republicans in the primary before besting Democrat Elizabeth Colbert-Busch in a special election.

That earned him the moniker "the comeback kid." But at this unfamiliar juncture for a politician who until Tuesday had never lost an election, it's unclear how he will come back from this.

"Generally, it's hard for people like Sanford to just go away, and what I mean by that is they spend their entire career in politics. They care deeply about constituents and they care deeply about issues. It's hard for them not to continue the fight," said Jordan Ragusa, a College of Charleston political science professor who has been researching the #NeverTrump effect on Republican House members.

There are opportunities in the future. Some have speculated that Republicans opposed to Trump, like U.S. Sens. Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, have floated the idea of launching their own renegade White House challenges in 2020.

Sanford, who had once been considered a potential presidential candidate before his affair, denied interest in a 2020 bid.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., will also be facing a re-election bid that year and, based on his low favorability among voters in the Palmetto State, he's assured a multi-challenger primary.

Sanford has close to $1.1 million in his state gubernatorial campaign account that has sat mostly dormant since 2006.

But first, Sanford said he needs to do some soul-searching.

"I'll assess what comes next soon enough, but first I have to assess where I am, and what does this all mean," he said.

sanford mug.jpg

Mark Sanford.  Grace Beahm Alford/Staff File.

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