Pri­mary elec­tion les­son for GOP: Don’t cross the pres­i­dent

The Mercury (Pottstown, PA) - - NEWS - By Lisa Mascaro and Meg Kin­nard

WASH­ING­TON » Don’t cross Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

That’s the les­son many Repub­li­cans are draw­ing from Rep. Mark San­ford’s sur­prise de­feat Tues­day in his pri­mary elec­tion in South Carolina. The vic­tor, state Rep. Katie Ar­ring­ton, re­peat­edly high­lighted San­ford’s crit­i­cism of the pres­i­dent.

The out­come is a cau­tion­ary tale for Repub­li­cans in Congress who try to work with Trump while also main­tain­ing their in­de­pen­dence. One wrong turn — or in San­ford’s case, many — and they could face the wrath of a pres­i­dent who is quick to at­tack de­trac­tors as en­e­mies, even in his own party.

“That’s ul­ti­mately what the race de­volved down to, which was, was I Trump enough?” San­ford told re­porters on Capi­tol Hill.

“It’s a very tribal en­vi­ron­ment right now,” he said. “Are you for or against Trump?”

He said he hoped his de­feat would not dis­suade other mem­bers from speak­ing out against Trump. Agree­ing to dis­agree is “a sign of health in our po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.”

San­ford is the sec­ond in­cum­bent House Repub­li­can to lose a pri­mary this year, though the de­feat of Rep. Robert Pit­tenger in North Carolina came de­spite his staunch sup­port for the pres­i­dent.

Still, San­ford is only the lat­est ca­su­alty in the in­tra­party con­flict that has roiled the GOP in the Trump era. Trump is known to re­mem­ber slights from law­mak­ers.

Rep. Martha Roby, for ex­am­ple, was forced into a runoff last week in Alabama af­ter her op­po­nents seized on her own rift with the pres­i­dent. In 2016, af­ter the re­lease of a tape in which can­di­date Trump bragged about grab­bing women, Roby said she wouldn’t vote for him for pres­i­dent.

Re­cent re­sults have a mes­sage, said Rep. Barry Lou­d­er­milk in neigh­bor­ing Georgia. Be a team player or Trump will sup­port some­one who will be.

“It doesn’t make me ner­vous, but it prob­a­bly gives pause to some who want to openly crit­i­cize the pres­i­dent,” he said.

Trump cel­e­brated San­ford’s de­feat on Twit­ter, claim­ing suc­cess in oust­ing a foe. In a highly un­usual move for a pres­i­dent, he had tweeted an en­dorse­ment of Ar­ring­ton on Tues­day af­ter­noon when polls were still open in South Carolina.

“My po­lit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tives didn’t want me to get in­volved in the Mark San­ford pri­mary think­ing that San­ford would eas­ily win — but with a few hours left I felt that Katie was such a good can­di­date, and San­ford was so bad, I had to give it a shot,” he said.

The trans­for­ma­tion of the GOP un­der Trump makes some law­mak­ers un­easy.

It’s “be­com­ing a cultish thing, isn’t it?” said re­tir­ing Sen. Bob Corker of Ten­nessee, who has an on-off re­la­tion­ship with Trump. “And it’s not a good place for any party to end up with a cult­like sit­u­a­tion.”

To be sure, the pres­i­dent’s track record of pick­ing win­ners and losers in elec­tions is not per­fect. He also backed Gov. Henry McMaster, who re­placed Nikki Ha­ley in South Carolina, but McMaster was forced into a pri­mary runoff with Greenville busi­ness­man John War­ren.

And Trump fa­mously backed Roy Moore, the for­mer Alabama judge ac­cused of sex­ual mis­con­duct with teenage girls, in a spe­cial elec­tion ear­lier this year that de­liv­ered the state’s first Demo­crat to the U.S. Se­nate in a gen­er­a­tion.

But Trump’s pref­er­ence for pop­ulist can­di­dates like Corey Ste­wart, the Con­fed­er­ate-statue-sup­port­ing Repub­li­can who won the GOP nom­i­na­tion for Se­nate in Vir­ginia on Tues­day, in­creas­ingly seems to be re­mak­ing the GOP, if not Congress, in his im­age. Ste­wart will face Sen. Tim Kaine, the Demo­cratic Party’s 2016 vice pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee, in the fall.

As for­mer Speaker John Boehner said re­cently, “There is no Repub­li­can Party. There’s a Trump Party.”

Re­cent polls have found that more than 80 per­cent of Repub­li­can vot­ers ap­prove of the job Trump is do­ing, and that makes GOP law­mak­ers hes­i­tant to crit­i­cize him.

“Yes, of course it’s his party,” said Doug Heye, a for­mer top House GOP lead­er­ship aide who is now a party strate­gist. “That’s only more true to­day, given his high pop­u­lar­ity among Repub­li­can vot­ers.”

He said law­mak­ers would be wise to keep their dif­fer­ences with the pres­i­dent lowkey and within the range of pol­icy, not per­son­al­ity, so as not to alien­ate Repub­li­can pri­mary vot­ers pro­tec­tive of the com­man­der in chief. “What they will not sup­port is some­one they view as go­ing af­ter the pres­i­dent per­son­ally,” Heye said.

WADE SPEES/THE POST AND COURIER VIA AP

U.S. Rep. Mark San­ford hugged his sons af­ter ad­dress­ing his sup­port­ers at Lib­erty Tap Room in Mount Pleas­ant, S.C., Tues­day. San­ford lost his first elec­tion ever Tues­day, beaten for the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion for an­other term in the coastal 1st District around Charleston by state Rep. Katie Ar­ring­ton.

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