CHARLESTON, South Carolina — Rep. Mark Sanford knows what it’s like to be a political dead man walking. Maybe that’s why the threat of a primary challenge backed by the president of the United States doesn’t exactly faze him, at least on the outside.
As a member of the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus, the South Carolina congressman helped stop Trump’s favored Obamacare replacement, the American Health Care Act, in its tracks despite feverish attempts by the president and House Speaker Paul Ryan to get them on board.
The move stopped Trump’s legislative momentum in its tracks, prompting threats of primary challenges from the president to a handful of Freedom Caucus members — including Sanford, according to the congressman.
“It doesn’t make your day when the president of the United States says I’m going to take you out the next primary,” Sanford told a group of AP Government students at North Charleston’s Fort Dorchester High School during a visit there last week. But he went on to joke: “As best I can tell, his attention span is relatively short. And so, you know, I’m hoping that maybe he’ll forget about that and go on to something else.”
Last week, back in his district during Congress’ recess, he had to explain that call to his constituents — who voted about 54 percent for Trump — for the first time. But that didn’t mean apologizing for his opposition to the AHCA. At nearly every stop during his busy day last Wednesday, constituents expressed frustration with the Republicans’ health-care efforts.
“One of the most important things that we can do in any legislative process is, at times, stop things,” he said in an interview with VICE News.
At a morning “Coffee with your Congressman” event in Charleston, a blue patch in his otherwise red-leaning district, Sanford calmly confronted a woman who was irate over GOP efforts to cut Planned Parenthood funding, before encountering a man angrily railing against Republicans for opposing single-payer health care at a tech startup meeting.
As the man rattled off a list of countries he says have better health care than the U.S., Sanford cut him off, visibly frustrated: “All I’ve heard over the last week is health care! I got it!”
Sanford is careful to point out he was one of three Republicans on the House Budget Committee to vote against the AHCA. “Doing nothing is better than having a bill go in that doesn’t impact people’s premiums, yet the box has been checked, the political energy is gone,” he said, warning that such a scenario would cause significant political repercussions for Republicans in 2018.
But while he’s confident the House will eventually move forward on a bill, Sanford called the idea the Senate would pass that bill in its entirety “a complete fiction.”
“It will be, again, as good a reference point as we can get to in the House…and the Senate’s going to come up with some different stuff and then we’ll go to conference and we’ll argue it all over again,” he said.
At his district events, Sanford rarely strayed from his critique of President Trump, which is decidedly harsh for a fellow Republican. He called the president’s budget proposal a “make-believe budget,” and said Trump’s numerous policy reversals “makes people that much more cynical about the political process.”
In one instance, seemingly taking no heed of Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s Nazi gaffe the same week, Sanford compared the current political atmosphere to the rise of Hitler. Summarizing economist Friedrich Hayek’s book, “The Road to Serfdom,” he described a situation in which a “strongman” offers citizens fed up with inefficient government more safety in exchange for more freedom.
“I think we better be careful in our country — and I’m not liking Trump to Hitler or anything like that, I want to be very clear. But I’m saying some of those phenomena are at play in our country, in that people are really hurting, in some cases, and they’re very frustrated in the way that they feel like their government is not listening to them,” Sanford says.
Most politicians who’ve survived as long as Sanford know to steer clear of Hitler-anything, but Sanford is enjoying a third life in politics and he’s clearly playing it by his own rules. This is his second stint in Congress after two terms as governor where he was made a national media figure with an odd disappearance and an extramarital affair with an Argentine journalist in 2009. Now he’s back in Congress and becoming better known for his outspoken advocacy for fiscal conservatism, delivered in frank and accessible terms, and an easy affability with voters from across the spectrum.
At this point in his career, he’s circumspect about his political survival, even that possible primary challenge. “You take it all seriously, and so I’m doing all the things that you gotta do to prepare for a race, and we’ll see what comes,” he said.
While Sanford’s bullish on prospects for Republicans progressing on health-care reform, he’s got a much gloomier view of the overall political climate in Washington. Recounting his town hall last Tuesday, which opened with one man “flipping the bird to another guy,” Sanford says the vitriol in Washington didn’t necessarily start there.
“We live in a very fractured political environment right now. And what you see in Washington at times is very much representative of what’s happening at home,” he says.