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Conservatives Size Up Sanford for 2012

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Sanford-headshot.jpg

Gov. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) (South Carolina Governor's Office)

In the ongoing debate over the economic stimulus package, South Carolina Republican Gov. Mark Sanford has made all the right enemies. The White House has brushed aside Sanford’s threat to turn down $700 million allotted for his state. Republicans in Sanford’s own state have hinted that they’ll override any attempt to veto the cash. Moderate California Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has gently mocked Sanford’s position. “I’ll take it,” Schwarzenegger told George Stephanopolous last month. “I’m more than happy to take his money or any other governor in this country that doesn’t want to take this money.”

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Elephant.jpg

Image by: Matt Mahurin

Sanford’s public battle with the White House has won him support with a more important group of people: the Republicans who will pick their next standard-bearer in 2012. According to some big-money Republican donors, party strategists who worked on the 2008 campaign and activists who powered the quixotic presidential bid of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), Sanford is emerging as the leader for the next Republican nomination.

“His profile has grown dramatically over the last month,” said Floyd Brown, a Republican strategist who lives in Washington state best-known for creating the 1988 “Willie Horton” ads against Michael Dukakis. “Amongst the activists who really matter, in Iowa, in New Hampshire, in the South, there is a lot of positive talk about him. A lot of people asking, ‘What do you know about this guy?’”

If we are in the throes of a Sanford boomlet, the polls don’t reflect it. Sanford was not even included in a February CNN/Opinion Research poll that gave Gov. Sarah Palin (R-Alaska) narrow frontrunner status in the 2012 race; “someone else” polled 10 percent to Palin’s 29 percent. Unlike Palin, Sanford spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference, but he still came in 7th out of 10 poll choices, with 4 percent of the vote. The late timing of the speech—at a ticketed dinner—might have suppressed the number, but it didn’t provide early evidence of a Sanford surge.

That’s all above the radar. Below the radar, conservatives see in Sanford’s stimulus battle a pathbreaking political argument, one that has—better than the blunt unanimous vote against the stimulus in Congress—framed the argument in a way that conservatives can win.

“There’s unanimity among Republicans about what the party stands for after Bush,” said David Polyansky, the CEO of Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign who is launching a new political consulting firm with former Huckabee campaign manager Ed Rollins. “Even if the stimulus isn’t a defining issue two, three years from now, anyone who supports increasing taxes and increasing spending is going to have a hard time winning the next presidential nomination. So it’s helpful to be a governor articulating this conservative message and explaining why big spending is not the way to go.”

Floyd Brown was more blunt. “Who else is there?” he asked. “Gov. [Tim] Pawlenty [R-Minn.] is spending his political capital on satellites to track people when they drive. Mitt Romney supported TARP.”

Since Sanford started talking about blocking some stimulus funds, other Republican governors—Palin, Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas), Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.)—have followed suit. According to Republican strategists, that’s not obscuring the fact that Sanford was out there first, and that Sanford is better at articulating why he’s opposed to the spending. The governor has outlined his objections in interviews, op-eds and open letters to the White House. One week after the presidential election, Sanford took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to explain why he opposed “bailing out the states” and wanted the government to “free states from federal mandates.” His argument has hardly changed since then. On Friday, in another Wall Street Journal column, Sanford argued that the stimulus cash “will only postpone changes essential to South Carolina’s prosperity.”

None of this comes as a surprise to Sanford’s long-time admirers in the libertarian wing of the Republican Party. Elected to Congress in the 1994 Republican wave and elected governor of South Carolina in 2002, Sanford has consistently picked fights with the federal government, with teachers’ unions and with other enemies of the right. He’s an underdog whom deep-pocketed donors are ready to support.

Much of Sanford’s potential support is tied up with the Club for Growth, the decade-old political PAC that has bundled millions of dollars to support fiscal conservatives over moderates. Sanford has one of the warmest relationships with the Club of any national politician. Chad Walldorf, who heads the South Carolina Club for Growth, briefly served as Sanford’s deputy chief of staff, and helped steer a campaign to beat anti-Sanford state legislators in the 2008 primaries.

But it’s the national donors who are boosting Sanford for 2012. John Bryan, a wealthy retiree in Lake Oswego, Oregon has given hundreds of thousands of dollars through the Club to support its candidates–$210,000 in the 2008 election cycle–and has supported Sanford for years because of his advocacy of school vouchers.

“I wrote off the Republican Party as a principled organization probably twenty years ago,” Bryan said. “George W. Bush was no conservative. He mouthed conservative principles but he didn’t govern on them. That’s what I’ve come to expect from Republicans.” Bryan was pessimistic about whether “a man of integrity” like Sanford could rise any further in the Republican Party. But if Sanford ran, he said he’d support him fully. Robert Levy, the chairman of the Cato Institute’s board of directors, who donated $95,000 to the Club for Growth in 2008, called Sanford “principled, intellectually honest and right on the issues.” Other donors talked in the same way, of Sanford as a dream candidate whom they were happy to see the rest of the conservative movement keying in to.

Several 2008 candidates will go after these elements of the GOP, but Sanford might build another source of early support: the anti-government supporters of Rep. Ron Paul, who raised $35 million for their candidate in the presidential primaries. Paul and Sanford had been friendly when both men served in the House, said Paul’s spokesman Jesse Benton, the congressman’s grandson-in-law. “If Dr. Paul voted no on a bill and Sanford voted yes,” said Benton, “Sanford would come up to Dr. Paul afterward and talk it over. He would give a thoughtful consideration to why he’d voted the other way.”

According to Benton, Sanford is one of the only Republicans Paul might outright endorse if he ran for president—and if Paul doesn’t mount his own bid. “He’s the type of candidate that Dr. Paul could get excited about,” said Benton. “A lot of the people from our movement could find a lot to like in Mark Sanford.”

Sanford’s profile has grown dramatically among Paul supporters, aided by a profile in the American Conservative that collected page after page of take-no-prisoners quotes from the governor. Paul supporters are quick to point out that that no one can count on them to buy in on another candidate the way they bought in one the congressman from Texas. “The well-articulated freedom message that Ron Paul educated a generation about will be standard by which anyone else will be judged,” said Ernest Hancock, an Arizona libertarian activist who designed Paul’s unofficial “r3VOLution” logo. “Whether or not Sanford is someone we can support is going to be figured out by the 23-year olds with Internet connections who find out where he really stands within 15 minutes of Googling around.”

Democrats have welcomed Sanford’s new celebrity with Democratic National Committee running ads in his state, attacking him over the stimulus. Some Republicans think the Democrats are walking into a trap, no matter that polls show strong support for the stimulus package. “Having a popular conservative governor whose message about out of control spending is starting to resonate is a threat to their agenda,” said David Polyansky.

But Sanford is even winning fans among Republicans who don’t know whether he, or his message, could win in 2012. Last year Reihan Salam co-wrote Grand New Party, a manifesto for a Republican comeback, with incoming New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. The book calls for Republicans to replace one-size-fits-all rhetoric about tax cuts and abolishing government with conservative policies that would make it easier to raise families and afford homes; the model politician of the book is Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-Minn.). Last week, Salam said that Pawlenty, by buying into the frame that stimulus cash is necessary, is “part of the problem,” and that Sanford was selling what Republicans needed. Even if meant a short-term Republican defeat.

“He wants to have an argument,” said Salam. “He wouldn’t mind being a Barry Goldwater.”

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