The Veepstakes: Mark Sanford

One name that keeps being mentioned as a rising political star is South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, a Republican currently serving his second term. Sanford may be the governor of a relatively small state, but he is far from a political unknown. After George Allen's "macaca" meltdown, some pundits looked to Sanford to fill the void left by the former Virginia senator as a consensus conservative by running for president this year. There were even a few Draft Sanford movements online that persist to this day.

Sanford is young, handsome, a Washington outsider, and a strong fiscal conservative. The anti-tax wing of the GOP would love to see him on the ticket. He is also a small government Republican with a libertarian streak. So he would appear to complement John McCain in that regard.

However, he might not be the best pick for McCain because even though Sanford is a relatively popular second-term governor, he will likely have a lot of explaining to do for his South Carolina record. The problem isn't so much Sanford as it is the legislature he has to work with. His libertarianism has been a common source of friction between him and the state legislature. The South Carolina legislature routinely overrides his vetoes and behaves in such a way that polarizes large segments of the state's population. So the legislature's antics are marring Sanford's record.

South Carolina's government is overwhelmingly Republican. The lieutenant governorship and all statewide offices are controlled by Republicans. The only Democratic statewide office holder is Superintendent of Education Jim Rex. Republicans have a 73-51 advantage in the state house and a 27-19 advantage in the state senate. Both senators and four out of the six congressmen are Republicans. So Democratic opposition can't really be blamed for South Carolina's ills.

For example, the South Carolina legislature recently passed a bill allowing Christians to profess their faith by the creation of a license plate displaying a cross and the words "I Believe." The bill passed the legislature unanimously and became law without Governor Sanford's signature. (Many legislators thought it was a bad bill, but nobody wanted to see their name in an attack ad claiming "they voted against God.") Opponents of the bill have filed a lawsuit claiming that this license plate violates the separation of church and state because similar license plates for other faiths do not exist and would have to meet far more restrictions before being approved, such as not being able to incorporate any text.

South Carolina Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer even offered to personally pay the $4000 fee required by the Department of Motor Vehicles to begin production of the plates. In light of the potential lawsuit, Bauer remained defiant:

"We're not going to back down. We're going to fight for a change. I'm tired of seeing Christians back down in fear of a lawsuit."
It is worth noting that South Carolina has a very strong evangelical Christian presence. Blue laws are still enforced, as some businesses are not allowed to open before 1:30pm on Sundays. Sunday alcohol sales were prohibited until voters finally overturned that law at the ballot box this spring. Legislation banning sex toys even made it to the house floor two years ago.

Knowing the history of Christian conservative influence on South Carolina's government, this license plate controversy should not come as a surprise. But should Sanford be tapped to be McCain's running mate, he will likely have to take a stance on the license plate issue at the risk of exacerbating McCain's problems with the evangelical wing of the party or alienating the moderates and independents he desperately needs. These moderates and independents (and even some conservatives) are devout Christians, but many of them are also increasingly uncomfortable with the blurring of the lines between politics and faith. This could also bolster Barack Obama because his message of inclusion and unity could contrast with the South Carolina legislature's polarization. Sanford would also have to explain why he never signed (or vetoed) the bill or why he couldn't keep his lieutenant governor in check.

To be fair, Mark Sanford has tried to control the legislature with his veto pen, but the legislature commonly overrides his vetoes and enacts policies that are fiscally unwise or otherwise divisive. This doesn't matter to Sanford's political opponents because they will claim that as the chief executive of the state, ultimate responsibility for the state rests with him.

It is also worth noting that Sanford did not endorse McCain before the South Carolina primary in January. McCain narrowly won that contest, but by not endorsing him when he needed it most, Sanford likely lost a bit of his clout in the McCain camp. He did eventually endorse McCain, but by then, absent an unbelievable comeback by Mike Huckabee, it was clear McCain would be the nominee. By contrast, Florida Governor Charlie Crist endorsed McCain shortly before the hotly contested Florida primary, thus burnishing his standing with McCain through his loyalty.

Looking at the electoral map, Sanford doesn't do much more than solidify Republican support in the South. However, the South is the base of the GOP. If McCain is unable to carry this region on his own, then he has a serious problem that cannot be remedied with Sanford or any other candidate. At the very best, Sanford could make it a bit tougher for Barack Obama to pick off North Carolina and Georgia, but Sanford will be of little help in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.

His fiscal conservatism should help McCain win New Hampshire, but again, that is a state that McCain should be competitive in without any help. After all, he won that state's Republican primary in 2000 and 2008. So all in all, Sanford is neither an offensive nor defensive pick. He doesn't help hold Republican states that are significantly threatened (he won't be of much help in Virginia or Ohio) and he doesn't help McCain pick up vulnerable Democratic ones either (e.g., Pennsylvania).

In addition to this, Sanford's national profile is a bit too low. Voters outside of the South know very little about him. The brand of Republicanism he and his legislature practiced in South Carolina may make these voters less comfortable with McCain because South Carolina Republicanism is very different from the more moderate brand of Republicanism one can see in Colorado or Wisconsin. Democrats will probably attempt to tie Sanford to the evangelical wing of the party, thus making a McCain-Sanford ticket less appealing in the competitive states McCain needs to win. Running up the score in Kentucky and Alabama will not get him to 270.

All in all, Mark Sanford may look like a strong contender on paper, but he appears to introduce a lot of controversies that McCain can ill afford. Unfortunately for Sanford, many of these controversies are not due to his own actions, but rather to the tribalistic actions of the state legislature he has limited control over. And because his endorsement was "a day late and a dollar short," he would not appear to have the inside track to the vice presidential nomination. The fact that he doesn't do much to expand McCain's map the way Mitt Romney, Tom Ridge, or Tim Pawlenty does should serve as another disqualifying factor.

(For two very comprehensive and well written South Carolina blogs, I recommend reading The Palmetto Scoop and Elonkey.)

Next installment: Joe Biden

6 comment(s):

Anonymous said...

How come Mark Sanford's past and present problems with the South Carolina state legislature DO MATTER when discussing VP possibilities for John McCain while Mitt Romney's past problems with the Massachusetts state legislature DON'T MATTER when discussing VP possibilities for John McCain? Mitt Romney truly has plenty of "Massachusetts problems" that haven't even been fully discussed in detail, and it would take too long for me to even start to discuss them here. Mitt's problems with successfully getting Republicans at every level elected from within Massachusetts, Mitt's ongoing bad relationship with the Democratic Party dominated Massachusetts state legislature on a variety of issues, Mitt using his Governor position mainly as a stepping stone for his run for the '08 Presidency (and now for Mitt to possibly being picked as McCain's final choice for VP), Mitt's "RomneyCare" health care plan for the state of Massachusetts with all of its ongoing problems-both financial problems and all other problems with it, Mitt's failure to help with the future of the Republican Party from within Massachusetts, Mitt assiduously making fun of Massachusetts politics while campaigning outside of Massachusetts and while Mitt was still the Governor of Massachusetts, etc. Mitt Romney truly had his own set of problems while he was Governor of Massachusetts.

Brett said...

Thanks for the insights on Sanford, Anthony - I knew next to nothing about him except that he was supposedly a Republican governor of a very Republican state. That said, I think you probably should have addressed some more on what Sanford brings and doesn't bring in terms of states and votes - Sanford does not bring a state (South Carolina will probably go Republican again by large margins), and as you mentioned, he's not overwhelmingly popular with a specific group of people.

Anthony Palmer said...


Thanks for the recommendation. I added some more information about Sanford's electoral math to my original post. That actually makes Sanford even less appealing.

Like you said, South Carolina will never vote Democratic. Perhaps other Southern voters will be more inclined to vote for him, thus making it a bit harder for Obama to make inroads in some of the lighter red states like North Carolina (lots of young people and university students there) and Georgia (booming Atlanta), but the South is an area that McCain should be strong in anyway. I mean, that is THE Republican base. So Sanford doesn't bring much to the table at all, other than fiscal conservatism. But McCain's already running on that message.

Anthony Palmer said...


You raise a very good point. If Sanford's record is good enough to be scrutinized, then Romney's should be too. But I've been reading some conservative websites and the posters on these sites really don't seem to like Romney very much. Even though the media may seem bullish on him, these grassroots conservatives despise him and are flatout calling him a liberal and an opportunist and are pointing to his record as governor, policy reversals and all. Sarah Palin of Alaska seems to be the dream pick on the right, but I still don't see it.

Jennifer Read said...

Hi Anthony, thanks for recommending my blog -- that was very kind and I hope you know I think just as highly of your site.

As for our esteemed Governor, I agree with your assessment that Sanford should not be chosen. In addition to the license plate snafu, I would throw in the recent Ports Authority dust-up and Time's 2005 nom of Sanford as one of the 3 worst guvs as potential land mines.

But more importantly, as you mentioned, Sanford's inability to push through any major initiatives in a GOP controlled legislature should be the largest red flag for McCain.

Sanford has yet to show he has the ability to work with legislators to ratify his agenda. Especially for "Maverick McCain" who already ruffles feathers in his own party, he needs someone with a track record and temperament for assuaging the GOP base. As you point out, Sanford's Libertarian leanings and stamp-your-feet-veto mentality won't benefit McCain in a Dem-controlled Congress. These two Mavericks may be a bit too alike to be an effective team.

Anthony Palmer said...

Sanford says he's not being vetted for VP.

And I think his chances went up in smoke after his performance on Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer this weekend. Having a mental block on television is never a good thing.

Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.