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Why Mark Sanford's loss in South Carolina is so important

Why are so many Republicans terrified to defy Donald Trump? Look no further than Mark Sanford's primary in South Carolina.
Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford looks down while he browses at the Mount Pleasant Farmers Market in Mount Pleasant, S.C., May 7, 2013. (Photo by Rainier Ehrhardt/AP)
Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford looks down while he browses at the Mount Pleasant Farmers Market in Mount Pleasant, S.C., May 7, 2013. 

About a month before Donald Trump's inauguration, congressional Republicans realized that their party's incoming president could pose problems for the party, but few were willing to say so out loud. Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) said at the time, "People are naturally reticent to be the first out of the block for fear of Sean Hannity, for fear of Breitbart, for fear of local folks."

The South Carolina Republican nevertheless spoke up from time to time, usually on matters of principle. Sanford, a former governor and a conservative, made clear he wasn't comfortable with Trump's style of leadership, and though he voted with the White House's position most of the time, he broke ranks more than most in his House GOP conference.

And yesterday, that cost Sanford his career.

Sanford had been running an ad buy in recent days that hit back at Arrington's criticism that he hasn't been sufficiently supportive of the president, who won the congressional district by double digits in 2016.Sanford had previously called the president's steel and aluminum tariffs "an experiment with stupidity," and he suggested that Trump's rhetoric has been divisive and bad for the country.

He is the second House Republican incumbent to lose in a primary this year, following Rep. Robert Pittenger's loss in North Carolina last month.

Sanford lost to state legislator Katie Arrington (R), who received a late presidential endorsement yesterday, and who narrowly defeated the incumbent in the Republican primary. She declared after her victory, "We are the party of President Donald J. Trump."

And while there are a variety of interesting angles to this contest -- including the trouble House Republicans are having nationwide this year -- that one sentence from Arrington summarizes the significance of yesterday's results.

As the Washington Post  reported the day before the primary, Sanford was "discovering how loyalty to the president has become the defining question of Republican politics.... [Arrington] has made support for Trump the centerpiece of a surging campaign. Some Republicans who backed Sanford in the past have switched teams, citing the Trump factor."

It lends credence to former House Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) observation from two weeks ago: "There is no Republican Party. There's a Trump Party."

The practical significance of this is unavoidable: the more the Republican base punishes those within the party who dare to clash with the president, the more GOP officials are scared into submission.

Why are so many Republicans afraid to speak up -- or take action -- when confronted with Trump's abuses, corruption, and incompetence? Because they recognize the fact that what happened to Mark Sanford could also happen to them.

Postscript: Trump's tweet about this race raised eyebrows yesterday -- in part because it came so late, and in part because it made a provocative reference to Sanford's personal life -- but The Guardian's Ben Jacobs noted just how unusual it was to see a sitting president urge voters to reject an incumbent member of his own party.