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Mark Sanford Says He'll Challenge Trump For President, But That Just Got Harder to Do

Donald Trump speaks to South Carolina voters on the eve of the state's primary on Feb. 19, 2016. The state's Republican Party will not hold a primary in 2020.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
Donald Trump speaks to South Carolina voters on the eve of the state's primary on Feb. 19, 2016. The state's Republican Party will not hold a primary in 2020.

Updated at 3:46 p.m. ET Sunday

Former South Carolina Congressman Mark Sanford says he's running for president, making him the latest Republican to attempt a long-shot bid against President Trump in the 2020 GOP primary.

Sanford, who was also South Carolina's governor, made the announcement on Fox News Sunday. He called for a "conversation about what it means to be a Republican" and criticized Trump over adding to the national debt. Sanford lost reelection to the House in 2018 when the president endorsed his primary challenger, who narrowly lost to a Democrat in the general election.

"I think that the Republican Party has lost its way on what were traditional benchmarks to what the party had been about," Sanford said in an interview with NPR's All Things Considered. "... I think the Republican Party has profound problems ahead given the change in demographics and given the tone that [voters] see coming out of the White House," he added.

Sanford joins former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld and former Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh as Republican challengers to Trump. All three have little chance of winning. But, it seems, that isn't their only goal.

"Every time a president has had an opponent within their own party ... that president has gone on to lose the general election," Weld said in an interview with NPR's Morning Edition.

Trump's opponents are well aware of this history and are hoping for a repeat of what happened to one-term presidents such as George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. Each faced a major primary challenger from within his own party, and each went on to be denied a second term.

Trump's campaign and allies also know this history and are working to leave as little daylight for these challengers as possible. At the state level, that means moving to change the rules and even eliminate or scale back Republican primaries and caucuses.

On Saturday, the Republican Party in South Carolina, Sanford's home state, voted to scrap its GOP presidential primary, while in Kansas and Nevada, the GOP voted to replace presidential nominating caucuses in 2020 with an internal party process. Similar action is expected in Arizona this month.

The Trump campaign did not respond to numerous requests for comment, but it has tried to downplay and distance itself from the state party moves.

"They're more worried than they let on," said Bill Kristol, a #NeverTrump Republican who is trying to encourage primary challengers.

"If you are confident, if you're Donald Trump, if these are just minor irritants, you know what, you beat them all, you crush them all in the primaries, and everyone says, 'Wow, look how strong Donald Trump is,' " Kristol said. "If you're shutting down primaries, you're a little nervous about how the dynamic of these primary challenges could go."

Kristol's hope is that one of these long-shot candidates starts to gain traction — or that someone else gets into the race with an even better chance — and that, somehow, Trump is denied the nomination.

Kristol readily admits "that's unlikely." So a secondary goal is to bruise Trump enough to hurt his chances come November 2020.

That's what happened, most recently, in 1992, when Pat Buchanan challenged Bush in the Republican primary and earned enough delegates to get a prominent speaking slot at the party's convention. Bush lost that November to Bill Clinton. Since then, presidents of both parties have successfully avoided a similar fate.

Today, the Republican National Committee is operating in lockstep with the Trump campaign, and state party organizations are now led by Trump supporters, as would be expected with an incumbent president.

The three long-shot challengers

Trump has bashed his challengers on Twitter as "Three Stooges," pointing to their weaknesses and boasting about his support within the Republican Party — "94% approval," he claimed.

It's unclear where Trump got that figure from. The latest Gallup polling numbers have him at 88% approval among Republicans. That figure, incidentally, is one percentage point lower than George H.W. Bush's approval was among Republicans at the same point in his presidency.

Still, by just about every measure, the Republican Party is the party of Trump. And Weld knows that.

"The Trump organization in every one of the 50 states is the state Republican Party now," Weld said.

Weld ran for vice president on the Libertarian Party ticket in 2016. He is fiscally conservative and more moderate on social issues than most Republicans, favoring abortion rights and marijuana legalization. In an interview with Morning Edition, he insisted he is trying to be president, and he's trying to get there by winning the New Hampshire primary. But given the steep odds against him, hurting Trump's reelection chances would be an alternate outcome.

"In or around February of this year, I just felt it was intolerable and I had to do everything I could to make sure that he's not reelected president of the United States for four more years," he said.

But this year, the Massachusetts Republican Party changed its rules for assigning delegates in a way that could make it harder for Weld and easier for Trump to win the state. Under the new rules, all the state's Republican delegates will be awarded to any candidate who gets a majority of the vote in the primary. Weld's campaign argues that this could have unintended consequences that benefit the former governor.

"It's an underdog challenge, but the best ones are," said Stuart Stevens, who worked on Mitt Romney's presidential campaign in 2012 and is running a pro-Weld superPAC. His theory of the case is that if Trump stops looking like a winner, he'll be in trouble.

He pointed to Trump's tweet about his approval among Republicans, taking it as a challenge, of sorts.

"It seems to me, if you get 10%, you've done twice as good as he thought you would," Stevens said. "He's setting the bar. Let's see how he does."

Walsh, who served one term in the House as a Tea Party Republican from Illinois, supported Trump in 2016 and promoted birtherism before that. But now, he says, he was wrong.

"Am I a flawed candidate? Hell, yes," Walsh said in aninterview with Morning Edition. "But I know I've got the message that this president is unfit that needs to be heard."

Sanford brings his own flaws. A decade ago, he became a national punchline as his hike on the Appalachian Trail turned out to be a cover story for an extramarital affair. His political revival was cut short when, as a congressman, he tangled with Trump and then lost in a primary.

Republican state parties scale back nominating processes

Sanford's nascent run took a hit before he even announced it, when South Carolina's state Republican Party moved to drop its 2020 primary, meaning that he won't even be on the ballot in the state where he is known best.

"I think all of us should find it a little bit curious," Sanford told NPR about the decision. "In the world of politics, if you can stack up a 90% win, you go with it, particularly if it's the first in the South primary, given the signals it will send to subsequent states and subsequent primaries that will take place that will follow South Carolina. But they elected not to do that."

In a statement to NPR, the state party chairman said the decision to not hold a primary was not about Sanford or any other challenger to Trump.

"Whether or not to hold a presidential primary is a decision made by our state executive committee every four years," said South Carolina GOP Chairman Drew McKissick. "There is strong precedent on the part of both parties to not hold a primary when they control the White House."

A South Carolina state party official said there would be savings to taxpayers and listed years when either Democrats or Republicans in the state didn't hold primaries when their party held the presidency.

The exception: 1992, the year Buchanan challenged Bush.

In Kansas, the state's Republican Party tweeted on Friday that under its rule change, it "will not organize a Caucus for the 2020 election because President Trump is an elected incumbent from the Republican Party."

Arizona's Republican Party has a vote scheduled next weekend. And again, the party chairman insists that this isn't about protecting Trump.

"This is nothing new, despite the media's inauthentic attempt to portray it as such," said Kelli Ward, chairman of the Arizona Republican Party. "Arizona Republicans are fired up to reelect President Trump to a second term and will continue to work together to keep America — and Arizona — great."

Josh Putnam, a political scientist who runs the blog Frontloading HQ and closely follows the delegate selection rules for the nomination process, said the changes so far aren't outside the norm when a president is seeking reelection. In fact, both Democrats and Republicans in various states have canceled caucuses or otherwise scaled back the nominating process when a president from their own party has been on the ballot.

But you can't ignore the context of a nationally unpopular president who has had talk of impeachment and possible primary challenges hanging over him for most of his term, Putnam said.

"That threat has loomed over him and his administration the whole time. I think they kind of felt the need to exercise some muscle on the state level," Putnam said. "And the challenges, we should say, aren't the problem. They're a symptom of the unpopularity of the president both nationally and to some extend within the party."

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Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.