Sanford and sisier

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

With a week to go until the election, U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford has committed to staying on the sidelines, declining to endorse fellow Republican Katie Arrington for Charleston's seat in Congress.

"Part of leadership, at times, means knowing when it's best to keep quiet," Sanford told The Post and Courier on Monday.

"To me, this is probably one of those times," he added of Arrington, the candidate who beat him in the June GOP primary.

Sanford's silence comes as Arrington's race with Democrat Joe Cunningham is showing signs of being much closer than Republicans envisioned months ago, with the National Republican Congressional Committee on Monday sinking $87,000 into TV ads on her behalf.

The buy signals the race could be more competitive than initially thought, experts say, in a district traditionally considered "safe Republican."

"She's in a fight," College of Charleston political scientist Jordan Ragusa said of Arrington. "She is still likely to win that fight, but it's going to be a tough battle."

The ad begins running district-wide Tuesday and will be on the air until Election Day, according to details of the media buy.

The message of the ads was not disclosed. An NRCC official downplayed the competitive nature of the race.

"We are confident in the campaign Katie Arrington is running and are excited about having her in Congress," NRCC spokeswoman Maddie Anderson said in an email. "The NRCC's job is to make absolutely sure this seat stays in Republican hands."

The fact the NRCC is investing at all in this race is raising eyebrows among political watchers. The 1st Congressional District, which spans much of the South Carolina coastline from McClellanville south to Hilton Head, has been under Republican control for more than two decades.

Even the nonpartisan Cook Political Report considers the district to be one that "leans Republican," and notes historical election data gives a Republican candidate in the district a built-in 10-point advantage.

As far as the non-endorsement goes, Sanford said Monday that he has been asked for months by Republicans and Democrats to pick a favorite in the race, but each time he has refused.

That responsibility, Sanford contends, falls squarely on the voters and not him.

Sanford was one of only two House Republican incumbents to lose their primary challenges this election cycle. The other GOP House member was North Carolina's Robert Pittenger.

Sanford said his reluctance to wade into this congressional race has nothing to do the candidates individually but admits he has been facing some political pressure for his silence.

"I think I have to be true to what I’ve been about for the 20-plus years I’ve been in politics. There are times when an endorsement can move you to being at odds with those historical promises and actions," Sanford said, before affirming that this is one of those times.

Sanford also said he just doesn't like to make endorsements, period.

It stems from his own 1994 congressional race, where he won despite his opponents getting the backing of high profile names of the day like Jack Kemp and Dick Armey.

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"It really left a very strong belief with me that, as much as possible, elections ought to be about direct conversations between the voters and the candidates. Let everybody else stay out of it," he said.

Arrington's campaign confirmed their candidate has reached out to Sanford after the primary, but was not seeking an endorsement.

The Cunningham campaign issued a statement when asked whether the Democrat had sought Sanford's public support.

"We understand the complexity of the situation, but have certainly made it clear that we would appreciate Congressman Sanford's support," campaign spokesman Tyler Jones said in a statement.

The impact of a Sanford endorsement might not carry as much political weight these days, especially among Republican voters, Ragusa said.

"Normally, I would say yes, his endorsement would matter, but Sanford is what the Republican Party was rather than what the Republican Party is becoming," Ragusa said. 

A former Sanford staffer said the non-endorsement is not out of character.

"You're more likely to see the Lizard Man than Mark Sanford endorsing a candidate," said Scott English, his former chief of staff.

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.