Politics

Showdown on the South Carolina Coast

Tonight’s primary pits pretty Trumpy Republicans against actual Trump-backed challengers.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 21: Rep Nancy Mace (R-SC) speaks with reporters after voting in the affirmative to hold former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon in criminal contempt at the U.S. Capitol Building on October 21, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Rep. Nancy Mace, seen here after voting to hold Stephen Bannon in criminal contempt in 2021, is facing a Trump-backed challenger in the South Carolina primary on Tuesday. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

When the House of Representatives was voting on President Trump’s (second) impeachment on January 13, 2021, it was expected that around 5 to 10 Republicans would vote with all the Democrats. The names of those Republicans were mostly known in advance, as they had released earlier statements. Along with the other reporters in the House chamber, I watched as their votes came in on the vote-tracking board for confirmation: Kinzinger, Cheney, Katko, Upton, Valadao. All expected.

Then, out of left field, a certain “RICE” had a “Y” next to his name, rather than an “N.”

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I, at least, figured that Rep. Tom Rice, a rank-and-file member from Myrtle Beach who usually kept his head down and worked on issues like the dredging of South Carolina’s ports, had mis-voted and would change his vote back to “nay.” Just a week earlier, after the Capitol had been ransacked and members had to evacuate the House chamber, Rice was one of the House Republicans who voted against certifying electors from Arizona and Pennsylvania. Weeks before that, he had signed onto an amicus brief on behalf of a Texas lawsuit seeking to overturn the election.

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But he had not pressed the wrong button after all. He’d just snapped.

Rice admitted in a statement after the vote that Trump’s actions on Jan. 6, lack of remorse for them, and total disregard for those who were injured in the riots, had broken him. “I have backed this President through thick and thin for four years,” Rice said. “I campaigned for him and voted for him twice. But this utter failure is inexcusable.”

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Rice was the most surprising of the 10 Republicans to vote for impeachment that day—and, along with Liz Cheney, arguably the one who faced the most substantial political risk.

His district, covering Myrtle Beach, the northern coast of South Carolina, and stretching inland along the North Carolina border, is deep-red territory. It was mostly unchanged in redistricting, and FiveThirtyEight rates it as an R+26 seat. Like, well, all of South Carolina’s seats under the new map, the 7th District is not competitive whatsoever in a general election. Democrats won’t win it.

But because of Rice’s impeachment vote—for which he has shown no regret, unlike his votes against certifying electors—it’s extremely competitive in a primary. And while Trump has had his share of whiffs recently against the GOP’s conscientious objectors to the Big Lie, the off-the-charts reading of MAGA levels in Kenny Powers country might prove too much for Rice to overcome.

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A slew of challengers entered the primary field to challenge Rice, but State Sen. Russell Fry won Trump’s endorsement. From there, all he had to do was run ads saying “Tom Rice voted to impeach Donald Trump” (although you have to give Fry’s team credit for the creative way they presented this in their first campaign ad, “Villains Anonymous”).

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(Side note: Is the pink lady supposed to be Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter?)

Were the field split enough between various eager challengers, Rice might have a fighting shot at a plurality victory. But there will be a runoff if neither candidate hits 50 percent, and Rice’s ceiling of support may be too low if he gets into one with Fry. According to the Cook Political Report, “private polling still shows Rice stuck in the high 20s,” and “Rice backers acknowledge that his only hope in the runoff is to recruit a large contingent of Democratic voters to cross over.”

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Rice isn’t the only incumbent member of Congress that Trump is hoping to take out in South Carolina. In the coastal district abutting Rice’s to the south, Trump has backed a challenger to freshman Rep. Nancy Mace. While Mace never went as far as to vote to impeach Trump, she did make a couple of other comments and votes that were just heretical enough to earn herself a primary in Trump’s Republican Party.

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For example, in the hours after the Capitol riot, Mace said that all of the Trump administration’s “accomplishments were wiped out.” After that, perhaps she felt—or her consultants told her—that she had gone too far. She voted against impeachment, and within a matter of weeks she was making fun of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for being scared on Jan. 6.

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This is the Mace mystique: One day she’s defecting from her party to vote to hold Steve Bannon in criminal contempt for ignoring a subpoena from the Jan. 6 committee. The next day—as in, the literal next day after Trump endorsed her primary challenger—she’s in New York filming a campaign video outside Trump Tower, and pledging her fealty to the MAGA cause.

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Regardless, Mace didn’t stray as far from the line as Rice did, and is in a stronger position in her race.

The primary electorate in her district, which includes parts of Charleston, its suburbs, and tourist destinations like Hilton Head, isn’t as Trumpy as it is in Rice’s district. Keep in mind that this district, in a more competitive configuration prior to redistricting, was held by Democratic Rep. Joe Cunningham in the prior Congress.

Cunningham won the district, in part, because the incumbent—congressman and former Gov. Mark Sanford—was ousted in a primary by the Katie Arrington, who then blew it in the general election. And that, alongside her ample fundraising and prominent endorsements, is the other thing Mace has going for her: Her Trump-endorsed primary opponent in this race is none other than Katie Arrington.

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Though neither Mace nor Arrington would be in real risk in the general election, given the touch-up Republicans did to the seat to shore it up in redistricting, Mace has nonetheless warned voters that if they nominate Arrington, she’ll find a way to blow it again.

Beyond those two South Carolina showdowns, there are a couple of additional races to keep an eye on Tuesday, where primaries will also be held in Nevada, North Dakota, and Maine and Texas will host the first phase of a special election.

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In Nevada, occasionally moderate Rep. Mark Amodei is facing a primary challenger in Danny Tarkanian. In the last 18 years, Tarkanian has run and lost races for: Nevada state senate, Nevada secretary of state, U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. House of Representatives again, and U.S. House Representatives again. Perhaps the seventh time is the charm.

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And in Texas, the special election is all about everyone’s favorite thing: The narrative.

The seat was vacated by ex-Rep. Filemon Vela, who quit Congress this spring to join a lobbying firm. Though this seat will be a comfy D+17 district in November, the special election will still operate along the old lines, which is only D+5. Thus, Democrats had largely abandoned the race in the special: the main Democratic candidate—Dan Sanchez—is only running to serve as a caretaker for a few months before Rep. Vicente Gonzalez runs for it in the fall.

But if Republicans and their preferred candidate, Mayra Flores, win, not only will Flores be an incumbent in the fall, but Republicans will crow endlessly about Democrats’ doom. The collapse of the Democratic Party among Hispanics in south Texas is well-known already, but Republicans would love to have Flores as an avatar for that change heading into November. The GOP’s massive expenditures in the district tell the story.

Happy primary night!

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