Corrected, 11:25 a.m. | Former President Donald Trump’s effort to exact revenge on lawmakers who challenged his hold on the GOP meets its latest test Tuesday in South Carolina, where he has thrown his weight behind challengers to Reps. Tom Rice, who voted to impeach him, and Nancy Mace, who criticized his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, uprising.
Trump has endorsed state Rep. Russell Fry, one of six Republicans running against Rice in the 7th District, and former state Rep. Katie Arrington, who is challenging Mace in the 1st. He appeared with them at a South Carolina rally in March and boosted them in a phone call to supporters last week, during which he called the races “two of the most critical primary elections in the country.”
But both Rice and Mace have received support from other high-profile Republicans who have previously fallen in line behind the former president. Former House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., traveled to South Carolina to campaign with Rice, while Mace was endorsed by both former acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and former South Carolina Gov. and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.
Trump’s Make America Great Again Again PAC spent less than $60,000 helping his chosen candidates in either race — far from what it would take to make a dent in the massive fundraising leads Rice and Mace held on their challengers.
The result is an air of uncertainty surrounding both races and the potential for renewed questions about Trump’s ability to motivate the GOP base.
The South Carolina elections come amid a primary season that has largely revolved around the question of how much sway Trump still holds over the party, but that has so far failed to deliver a definitive answer.
Trump’s picks have prevailed in several high profile races — including the Senate nominations of author J.D. Vance in Ohio and television personality Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, both of whom faced competitive races and appeared to have surged in part because of Trump’s support. And whether they had his endorsement or not, candidates in GOP primaries across the map have adopted his “America First” messaging and competed to demonstrate their loyalty.
But Trump also supported several candidates for governor and other state offices who did not do as well. Nowhere was that more clear than in Georgia, the state where Trump had focused the majority of his energy because of its central role in delivering the Senate majority and the presidency to Democrats in 2020. The candidates he selected to overthrow Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger — former Sen. David Perdue and current Rep. Jody Hice, respectively — suffered staggering defeats.
‘Wear it like a badge’
Supporters for Rice and Mace hope that those results indicate a broader fatigue with Trump’s attempts to relitigate the 2020 election.
“Trump’s chosen candidate told everyone on a debate stage this isn’t about what’s best for them; it’s about one man and his vengeance over one vote,” said Rice’s campaign manager, Logan McVey, referencing Fry’s comment during a May debate that Rice had failed the district when he voted to impeach Trump.
“Tom Rice is making this about constituents that live here and delivering results for them. Voters have a choice between progress or pettiness on June 14,” McVey said.
Rice is the second of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump to face a primary. Four of them decided to retire rather than seek reelection in 2022.
Rice has stood out even among that group because of the partisan lean of his district — it voted for Trump by a 19-point margin in 2020 — and his record as a reliable pro-Trump vote in the House.
From 2017 through 2020, he voted to support Trump’s position on House votes 93.4 percent of the time, compared to 92.1 percent for the average Republican, according to CQ Vote Watch. He’s also the only person to vote to impeach or convict Trump in the House or Senate who also voted on Jan. 6 to support objections to counting the electoral votes of Arizona and Pennsylvania.
He has stood by his impeachment vote, saying this month on ABC’s “This Week” that, if he loses his seat because of his it, it would be worth it.
“So be it. I’ll wear it like a badge,” he said.
Rice’s supporters make the case that Trump’s vendetta against him risks depriving the district of an experienced voice in Congress. Rice is a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee, and a potential subcommittee chairman if the GOP takes the majority in November.
Rice has attacked Fry as insufficiently conservative and neglectful of his statehouse duties, and he has been able to press his case with fundraising that more than doubled any of his challengers.
Fry, in turn, has depicted Rice as a traitor to the district, issuing an ad that placed the incumbent in a room full of villains — including the devil and the Joker from Batman — who were appalled that he had voted to impeach Trump.
But even with Trump’s endorsement, Fry hasn’t attracted much outside support, according to disclosures with the Federal Election Commission through Thursday. In addition to $28,000 from Trump’s PAC, the only other outside group investing in the race was the pro-Rice Grand Stand Pee Dee PAC, which spent $300,000 opposing Fry.
With other Republicans in the race competing for the pro-Trump vote, it’s possible that no one one will win a majority, and the election will be pushed to a June 28 runoff.
Mace has argued that Arrington is too extreme for the 1st District, which stretches along the state’s southern coastline. Arrington ran there in 2018 and defeated then-Rep. Mark Sanford in a Republican primary, only to lose in the general election to Democrat Joe Cunningham, who held the district for one term before Mace defeated him in 2020.
Mace’s argument is complicated by the state’s new congressional map, which traded much of the more left-leaning areas in the Charleston suburbs that had gone for Cunningham for more reliably Republican Berkeley County. Under the new lines, the district would have voted for Trump by 8 points in 2020 and the November race is rated Solid Republican by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales.
Mace has also attacked Arrington for losing her security clearance in 2021 after Pentagon officials claimed she improperly disclosed classified information when she worked as an IT official at the Department of Defense. Arrington has called the episode a “political hit job.”
Mace has raised $4.1 million — more than four times Arrington’s $909,000 — allowing her to air nonstop television ads promoting Haley’s endorsement and touting her recent trip to the Southern border.
Arrington has attacked Mace’s conservative credentials, calling her a RINO, or Republican in Name Only.
In addition to the $32,000 Trump’s PAC has spent on the race, Arrington benefited from $346,000 combined spent opposing Mace by the super PACs Our American Century, Drain the DC Swamp PAC and the American Principles Project. Mace benefited from $893,000 in outside support. That included $802,000 spent against Arrington by two GOP groups devoted to electing GOP women, Winning for Women Action Fund, and Value in Electing Women PAC.
Mace has also worked to appeal to Trump supporters. After working on his 2016 campaign, she became one of his fiercest critics in the aftermath of the Capitol assault. But her votes at key moments have not followed a clear trajectory. She voted to certify the 2020 election, but she did not vote to impeach the president or join the 35 Republicans to vote for an independent bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol.
When Arrington announced her campaign, Mace responded with a video filmed in front of Trump Tower in New York City in which she praised the former president. It didn’t help. Trump has lambasted her as “a woman who is just not with us,” and lumped her in with other Republicans who he has attacked. “She represents phony, fake Republicans like [Wyoming Rep.] Liz Cheney, [Utah Sen.] Mitt Romney, [Illinois Rep.] Adam Kinzinger and, again, Paul Ryan,” he said during his June 9 telephone rally for Arrington and Fry. “All people that you don’t want representing you, they’re with her.”
This report has been corrected to state that Rice is the second Republican candidate who voted for impeachment to face a primary.