Update: Mark Sanford announced he was ending his presidential campaign on Tuesday, Nov. 12.
The bell in the Independence Hall tower rang at 9 a.m., and Mark Sanford took a deep breath. He grabbed a giant check for “one trillion dollars,” stood next to a tiny wooden lectern, and asked me if I was ready for him to kick off a news conference announcing his bid to challenge President Donald Trump in the 2020 Republican primary.
It didn’t really feel like a news conference. I was the only reporter there.
And when it began, the only others around besides his two aides were a family 30 yards away with a selfie stick and a group of students from Paris who wanted to know why he had such a big check. (Answer: It represented the burden of the national debt.)
The former South Carolina congressman and governor — perhaps best known for disappearing from office for six days in 2009 to visit a paramour in Argentina — launched his long-long-long-shot presidential campaign Wednesday in a gloomy Philadelphia. The launch also served to kick off his "Kids, We’re Bankrupt and We Didn’t Even Know It” tour — a 3,500-mile, weeklong road trip he hopes will “spark a needed conversation” within the Republican Party about spending and debt. He was set to make stops later Wednesday in Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.
That “conversation” isn’t going to get sparked, though, without some attention. Besides me, news conference attendees included two photographers — including an Inquirer photographer — and a 6ABC cameraman who showed up briefly. (“I’ll talk to about 250,000 people in just a second,” Sanford said to me as the cameraman approached with his tripod.) No other local TV station showed up to the kickoff spot, even though Fox 29′s studio is a block away. CBS3 and NBC10′s studios were within two miles of Sanford’s news conference.
“Nobody knows me in Philadelphia. I get it,” Sanford said. “I think in life we all do what we can do, what’s within our power to have an effect. So we’re just sort of moving along as we go along.”
This bid for president, which has just a couple of volunteers and is being financed through old congressional campaign funds, is a near impossibility. Sanford, who joins two other primary challengers — former Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh and ex-Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld — won’t even be eligible to run in at least five states that canceled Republican primaries altogether amid Trump’s total takeover of the GOP, including Sanford’s home state of South Carolina.
Sanford, who is challenging a politician obsessed with crowd size, interacted with just one person who wasn’t a journalist, one of his two aides, or the French teens.
Just as Sanford was starting to tell me about how grassroots movements are built, a man approached us, introducing himself as Bill Quinn, the father of one of Sanford’s former University of Chicago students. Quinn said his daughter, whom he described as a progressive Democrat, became an “admirer” of Sanford “for his integrity.”
Quinn, a 63-year-old retired lawyer from Center City, is a Democrat, too, and said that while he supports Sanford’s bid and believes what he’s doing is important, he has no plans to switch party registrations and vote in the GOP primary.
Sanford said he’s trying to contrast himself partly by tapping into that idea of integrity, and by expressing “empathy and humility.” While Trump has denied dozens of accusations of sexual impropriety, Sanford is happy to own up.
It’s been more than a decade since Sanford, now 59, faced potential impeachment, was censured by his own legislature, and got slapped with dozens of ethics violations after that infamous rendezvous in Buenos Aires. While the then-married governor was out of the office, his staff initially said he was just out “hiking the Appalachian Trail,” a phrase that became the 2009 version of a meme and was used as a euphemism for anything related to politics and sexual escapades.
He eventually apologized for his misdeeds, but the scandal never went away. Google “Mark Sanford” and the third link is a Wikipedia entry, “Mark Sanford extramarital affair."
Still, after leaving the Governor’s Mansion, Sanford returned to political life just a few years later, winning back his old seat in the U.S. House in a 2013 special election. Sanford compiled a conservative voting record, but was not in lockstep with Trump after he took the White House in 2016. The Washington Post, in a story about Republicans fighting for their political lives in Trump’s America, called Sanford “one of the president’s most eloquent critics.”
Apparently the president wasn’t interested in oratory.
The day of the 2018 primary election, the president threw his support behind Sanford’s pro-Trump opponent, tweeting: “Mark Sanford has been very unhelpful to me in my campaign to MAGA. 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. She is tough on crime and will continue our fight to lower taxes. VOTE Katie!”
“He took a gun and shot me in the head,” Sanford said Wednesday, “and that’s the end of that.”
“If there’s an appetite in terms of people’s concerns on the financial realities of our country and the way in which we are at a tipping point, then there’s going to be some level of measure and movement with regard to the campaign,” Sanford said. “And if there’s not, there won’t be. And it will be short-lived.”
He shot me a peace sign, packed up his giant check, and headed for Harrisburg.