WASHINGTON — Former Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina said on Tuesday that he was ending his long-shot primary challenge to President Trump just two months after announcing it, arguing that the impeachment inquiry had made it impossible for his message of fiscal conservatism to break through.
“You’ve got to be a realist and what I did not anticipate is an impeachment,” Mr. Sanford said at a news conference in Concord, N.H., where he announced the end of his campaign.
Mr. Sanford conceded that his bid had been “a long shot, but we wanted to try and interject this issue, how much we’re spending, into the national debate, which comes along once every four years.” He said he found no “appetite for a serious nuanced debate with impeachment in the air.”
During his short-lived, quixotic campaign, Mr. Sanford made it clear he did not support the impeachment inquiry unfolding on Capitol Hill. And unlike the other two Republican primary challengers in the race, Mr. Sanford never mounted an argument based on Mr. Trump’s fitness for office, saying instead that he would support Mr. Trump in a general election if he became the party’s nominee.
“If you’re going to run against Trump without being able to criticize this abuse of power, there doesn’t seem to be a clear case for your candidacy,” said Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist who has been working to resist Mr. Trump from within the party. “He always tried to make it about an issue. A single-issue candidacy around the debt in this era can’t find much oxygen.”
Mr. Sanford was one of three Republican primary challengers attempting to peel off support from a president whose approval ratings in his own party rank consistently in the high 80s. He was joined in the David-vs.-Goliath struggle by Joe Walsh, a former Tea Party-backed congressman from Illinois, and William F. Weld, a former Massachusetts governor. Both are still running.
The “three stooges,” as Mr. Trump branded them on Twitter, saw themselves more as the Three Musketeers, who together hoped to create a chorus of Republican voices opposing Mr. Trump from different viewpoints.
A longtime foil for Mr. Trump, Mr. Sanford, who did two separate stints in the House of Representatives in addition to serving as governor, was seen in some respects as the most viable of the trio, and the one who might have had the most success in hectoring Mr. Trump from the right on the issue of the federal debt, and of getting under Mr. Trump’s skin.
A onetime A-list Republican with a strong anti-spending conservative message, Mr. Sanford’s political career almost ended for good in 2009, when he acknowledged an extramarital affair with a woman whom he secretly visited in Argentina while his aides claimed he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Mr. Sanford came back for a second political act, however, winning re-election to the House in 2013. He was elected twice more but lost a Republican primary in 2018 to a candidate backed by Mr. Trump, Katie Arrington. Ms. Arrington was ultimately defeated by a Democrat.
Of the three Republican primary challengers, Mr. Sanford in the end had the hardest time differentiating himself from Mr. Trump after he said he did not support impeachment.
“I respect Mark,” said William Kristol, the conservative writer and former editor of the now defunct magazine The Weekly Standard. “He at least tried to step up, when so many other Republicans haven’t done anything.”
Mr. Kristol, who has been a prominent “Never Trump” Republican since Mr. Trump was elected in 2016, has been working hard over the past year to recruit candidates to run against him.
The Trump campaign dismissed Mr. Sanford’s exit from the stage in the same way it had dismissed him while he was running.
“His candidacy had escaped our attention,” said Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the Trump campaign.
In reality, however, the campaign had been systematically working to ensure the trio of challengers had no way to break through. The Republican Parties in Arizona, Kansas, Nevada and South Carolina, meanwhile, canceled the 2020 presidential primaries in their states, making it virtually impossible for Mr. Trump’s challengers to build support.
And the campaign has also changed the rules in 37 states and territories for choosing delegates to the Republican National Convention, an effort to ensure there are no dissenting voices speeches at the party gathering in Charlotte next year.
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