The Atlantic

The 2020 U.S. Presidential Race: A Cheat Sheet

If Mark Sanford runs against Donald Trump, he’s doomed—for reasons that have nothing to do with the Appalachian Trail.
Source: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Perhaps it’s not too late for a Republican challenger to enter the race against Donald Trump for the presidential nomination.

A viable one, sure—it’s too late for that. But Mark Sanford, the former governor of South Carolina and U.S. representative, tells the Charleston Post and Courier that he’s considering a run for the GOP nomination, viable or not.

“Sometimes in life you’ve got to say what you’ve got to say, whether there’s an audience or not for that message,” Sanford said. “I feel convicted.”

This could have the makings of a fun race. Sanford is highly quotable, fond of talking with the media, and often an insightful political analyst. He has a score to settle with Trump, too: The president’s intervention helped Sanford lose a GOP primary last fall, only to see the Democrat Joe Cunningham snatch the seat away from the Trump-endorsed Republican Katie Arrington.

Sanford also has lots of experience campaigning for office, but there’s also one glaring case where his time on the trail went wrong. Or rather, the problem was that he wasn’t on the trail: Despite claiming to be hiking the Appalachian Trail when he mysteriously disappeared from Columbia in June 2009, it turned out then-Governor Sanford was in Argentina, conducting an extramarital affair.

That sordid farce makes for lots of easy jokes about Sanford’s presidential, um, flirtation. “The last time Mark Sanford had an idea this dumb, it killed his Governorship. This makes about as much sense as that trip up the Appalachian trail,” the chair of the South Carolina Republican Party said in a statement.

But here’s a take hotter than Mark Sanford dancing the tango: The reason his candidacy would remain mired in the low-lying pampas rather than ascending to the buenos aires at the top of the polls isn’t his personal life, but his politics.

Personal scandals just aren’t the problem they used to be. Consider Sanford, who refused to resign the governorship, survived an impeachment attempt, and then persuaded South Carolina voters to send him back to his old seat in the U.S. House in 2012. Or, of course, consider Donald Trump, who was caught on tape boasting about sexually assaulting women just a month before the 2016 election—one of many personal scandals that might have disqualified another candidate in another age.

Sanford’s politics are, however, another matter. Trump’s other GOP challenger, William Weld, has long been well outside the party’s mainstream—a species of liberal New England Republican that no longer exists in the wild. He quit his post as Massachusetts governor to serve as ambassador in a Democratic administration (and saw that job nixed by Republicans); in 2016, he ran for vice president on the Libertarian ticket.

Around the same time that Weld’s ambassadorial nomination was being deep-sixed, Sanford was making waves as part of a band of young, fiercely fiscally conservative members of the House who had been elected in 1994. Sanford did things like sleep in his office to prove his frugality. But over time, Sanford’s wing of the party became the party’s center. The Tea Partiers who slept in their offices after the 2010 election were just paying homage to him. As this strain of GOP thought ascended, Sanford began to look like a likely presidential candidate. There were rumors that he might run in the 2008 election or, until June 2009, the 2012 race.

Now that kind of conservatism is scattered to the winds. Paul Ryan is retired. Sanford is out of office. Newt Gingrich has . Trump has no interest in principled social conservatism or fiscal conservatism, preferring—as this week has demonstrated—a ethnically based approach to politics. He’s happy to cut taxes, as they were, but just to save his class a buck, not out of any particular aversion to big government. It’s

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