Republican voters lashed out against traditional party leaders Tuesday, ousting Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina and nominating a conservative firebrand for Senate in Virginia, the latest illustration that fealty to President Donald Trump and his hard-line politics is paramount on the right.
And the president endorsed her in an unexpected, and deeply personal, broadside against Sanford just three hours before the polls closed.
In Virginia, Republicans dismissed the concerns of mainstream party leaders to nominate Corey Stewart, a local official who has made his name attacking unauthorized immigrants and embracing emblems of the Confederacy, the AP reported. He will challenge Sen. Tim Kaine, the former Democratic vice-presidential candidate.
Party leaders fear that Stewart, a fervent Trump supporter who has mimicked his slashing style, could drag down other Republicans in a state that is key to control of the House.
But Republican primary voters appeared more eager to punish Trump’s enemies than to reward his allies: Even as they seemed poised to turn out Sanford, South Carolina Republicans forced Gov. Henry McMaster, one of Trump’s earliest supporters, into a runoff election against a 39-year-old political newcomer.
It was the upset in Sanford’s Charleston-area House district, however, that represented the starkest reminder that many Republican voters now demand total fidelity to the president: Sanford, who resurrected his career in the House after conducting a much-publicized extramarital affair as governor, has repeatedly taken aim at Trump.
Sanford had demanded Trump release his tax returns while bemoaning what he calls “the cult of personality” gripping the GOP. Arrington’s surprise victory seemed to vindicate Sanford’s assessment of the party — at his own expense.
Sanford remained defiant in the face of defeat, telling supporters in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, that he did not regret clashing with Trump.
“It may have cost me an election in this case, but I stand by every one of those decisions to disagree with the president,” Sanford said Tuesday night as his chances appeared to grow more bleak.
Taking the stage at her election night party, Arrington affirmed Sanford’s assessment: “We are the party of Donald J. Trump,” she said in North Charleston, South Carolina.
The president’s popularity with conservative activists did seem to do in Sanford: Arrington focused relentlessly on his apostasies, assailing Sanford for “bashing our captain, President Trump,” as she put it in a debate earlier this month.
Trump, catching up on Tuesday with a campaign waged for months in his shadow, echoed those attacks. He invoked the affair Sanford conducted with an Argentine woman, effectively firing a warning shot at those Republicans who dare speak out against him.
“Mark Sanford has been very unhelpful to me in my campaign to MAGA,” Trump wrote on Twitter, referencing his “Make America Great Again” slogan as he flew back from Singapore. “He is MIA and nothing but trouble. He is better off in Argentina. I fully endorse Katie Arrington for Congress in SC, a state I love.”
While Trump has repeatedly savaged less-pliant Republicans in the Senate, including Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee, his surprise attack on Sanford was his first comparable effort to make an example of a critic in the House.
Sanford is the second House Republican to tumble in a primary election against a challenger displaying disloyalty to the president. Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama, who withdrew her endorsement from Trump in 2016 after the publication of a recording in which he bragged about sexual assault, failed to garner a majority in a primary earlier this month and was forced into a runoff.
Trump’s blast appeared to be unplanned. Some White House officials were not aware his tweet was coming, pointing out that the president sent the message while he was on Air Force One returning from the summit with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, in Singapore. And about 40 minutes after he took aim at Sanford, Trump appeared to confirm he was catching up on news back home when he also swiped at actor Robert De Niro, who recently used the Tony Awards ceremony to aim a four-letter attack at the president.
Yet on the same night that Sanford struggled, McMaster, a staunch Trump ally, was forced into a runoff — a vivid illustration that the Republican base’s thirst for insurgency does not necessarily spare Trump’s supporters. McMaster, 71, who has been buffeted by an ongoing corruption investigation in the state capital, garnered just 44 percent of the vote and will face John Warren in the June 26 runoff.
After Trump traveled to the state earlier this year to raise money for McMaster, the governor used footage from trip to make a television ad. Over the weekend, the president tweeted his support for McMaster, calling him “a special guy.”
The question now is whether Trump will campaign for McMaster in the runoff election, putting his own political capital on the line for a governor who was one of the first elected officials to endorse him and assumed his office when Nikki R. Haley became ambassador to the United Nations.
South Carolina Democrats, who have not won a governor’s race two decades, nominated James Smith, a state legislator and Afghanistan veteran for the state’s top job.
In Virginia, Republicans braced for the possibility of protracted turmoil: Stewart, who nearly seized the nomination for governor last year, has also savaged GOP leaders in the state and faced intense scrutiny for his associations with multiple white nationalist figures.
Republicans fear that having Stewart as their nominee against Kaine, the former vice-presidential nominee, will spur moderate voters and women to desert the party in droves, imperiling several contested House seats in the state. Republican candidates across the state may now find themselves captive to Stewart’s every utterance over the next five months — an unwelcome burden for lawmakers like Reps. Barbara Comstock and Scott Taylor, who were already endangered.
In an emphatic display of the energy behind Democratic women in congressional races this year, Virginia Democrats nominated three women Tuesday night for the three most contested House seats in the state. They selected Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA officer, to oppose Rep. Dave Brat outside of Richmond, and Elaine Luria, a Navy veteran, to challenge Rep. Scott Taylor in his Hampton Roads-based seat.
And in the state’s most vulnerable Republican-held district, Democrats selected state Sen. Jennifer Wexton to oppose Rep. Barbara Comstock. Comstock’s district, which stretches from Northern Virginia to the Shenandoah Valley, voted strongly against Trump in 2016 and rejected Republican candidates for the legislature and statewide offices last fall.
Primaries were also held Tuesday in North Dakota, Maine and Nevada, with the latter two featuring Democratic contests where long-serving women faced off against male opponents. Democratic women have fared well in many congressional primaries this year, but the Maine and Nevada races marked the starting line for a long season of more difficult primaries for female candidates for governor.
In Nevada, Steve Sisolak, a Clark County commissioner, easily defeated his fellow commissioner Chris Giunchigliani in a race that evolved into a proxy battle between former Sen. Harry Reid and Hillary Clinton.
Sisolak entered the race with the blessing of Reid, the former Senate majority leader who remains the de facto head of the Nevada Democratic Party, and he raised significantly more money than the progressive Giunchigliani. She won an infusion of money from outside groups, most notably Emily’s List, the group that backs Democratic women who support abortion rights, and a late endorsement from Clinton. But it was not enough to threaten Sisolak
He will face Adam Laxalt, the 39-year-old state attorney general and grandson of former Sen. Paul Laxalt, who easily won the Republican primary.
In Maine, where Democrats and Republicans were selecting their nominees for governor, a new system of voting promised to provide an atmosphere of uncertainty that could last for several days. Voters in the state were ranking primary candidates in order of preference, and using second- and third-place preferences to settle races in which no first-choice candidate achieves majority support. There is a crowded field of governor’s candidates in both parties and it is unlikely anyone will win based on the first round of preferences.
While races in most of the country have been defined by a candidate’s stance toward Trump, the race for governor in Maine has largely unfolded in the shadow of Gov. Paul R. LePage, an unpopular and deeply divisive Republican who has aligned himself with the White House.
On the Democratic side, the strongest candidates appeared to be Janet Mills, the state attorney general, and Adam Cote, a businessman and military veteran. But the race is unsettled enough that other candidates, like Mark Eves, a former speaker of the State House of Representatives, may have a chance to win. Shawn Moody, a wealthy businessman, prevailed on the Republican side.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.