In South Carolina’s congressional primaries Tuesday, there was one Republican who publicly lacerated former President Donald Trump and lost, and another who criticized Trump but nevertheless won by taking a more conciliatory approach.
Trump endorsed and campaigned for both of their opponents, hoping to replace them with more loyal supporters.
More interestingly, Rep. Tom Rice, who had voted to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection and continued to verbally lash the former president up until election day, was seeking reelection in one of the state’s most Trump-friendly districts. South Carolina’s Seventh District includes large swaths of rural forest and farmland in the state’s northeast region, known as the Pee Dee.
Rice lost decisively to Trump-backed candidate Russell Fry, 51% to 24%.
But Trump’s choice in another district, the Charleston-dominated First District, failed to unseat Rep. Nancy Mace, who did not vote to impeach Trump but had incurred the former president’s anger nonetheless by condemning his actions leading up to and on Jan. 6, 2021, and by voting to hold former Trump adviser Steve Bannon in contempt of Congress.
Mace defeated challenger Katie Arrington, 53% to 45%.
Mace took a far less confrontational approach to Trump than did Rice, even though Trump won Mace’s district in 2020 by the smallest margin of any Republican president in the last 20 years. Mace won the seat in 2020 in a race against Joe Cunningham, who was the first Democrat to represent the Charleston-based seat in almost 40 years.
In an effort to soften her Trump criticism, Mace went to Trump Tower in New York this past winter, after Trump had endorsed Arrington, and praised the former president’s policy accomplishments during his time in office. She argued that Republicans should vote for her to keep the seat out of Democratic hands. During a South Carolina rally, the former president mocked her Trump Tower video as “untruthful just like everything else she does.”
In contrast, Rice had apparently decided he would not try to pacify his critics but would rather go down to defeat without bending the knee to Trump.
“He’s purging. He’s purging. He’s trying to set the Republican Party up as a bunch of yes-men loyalists. Think about that. That’s scary,” Rice told Politico last weekend.
But Mace’s win shows the limits of Trump’s endorsement, even though it also demonstrates that there are limits for how much any Republican in deep red America can go against Trump.
There was another layer to Mace’s win as well. Former Trump Cabinet member Nikki Haley sought to make the election a contest between herself and Trump.
Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, endorsed Mace a few days before Trump endorsed Harrington, but then she campaigned aggressively for Mace in the closing days of the campaign.
Haley’s ambitions for the presidency are no secret. She has been building a political operation for years that would help her launch a run for the presidency. Mace’s victory gives Haley a proxy win against Trump ahead of the 2024 Republican presidential primary. Trump is widely expected to launch another campaign for president himself after the midterms.
But another potential contender for the Republican nomination, former Vice President Mike Pence, has gained some traction recently by standing behind a Republican politician fiercely attacked by Trump.
Pence backed Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp against a primary challenge from former Sen. David Perdue. Trump constantly blasted Kemp for his refusal to aid in the former president’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election results. Pence, who also earned Trump’s ire for not working to reverse the election, appeared at a Kemp rally the night before the Georgia primary. Kemp crushed Perdue by 50 points.
Mace’s win was not nearly the same magnitude as the Kemp victory, but it gives Haley something to show donors and voters to indicate that her political brand has purchase in a showdown against Trump’s.