Trump has been committed to ousting Rice and even held one of his campaign-style rallies here in Florence in March to help state Rep. Russell Fry, the 37-year-old Republican he’s chosen to boost in the crowded field.
While both campaigns admit it’s possible no candidate gets 50% of the vote and the top two will go to a runoff in two weeks, the results will indicate the strength of Trump’s influence in the deep-red 7th District.
On Monday, during a final campaign event here, the second-largest population center in the district, Fry served fried rice to supporters as a play on the leading candidates’ names.
“Who’s ready to fry some rice tomorrow?” Fry punned to cheers.
Rice’s vote to impeach Trump — which came after the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol by Trump supporters — has remained a central issue in the primary, and Fry has worked to remind Republican voters of what many view as a betrayal of Trump. Calling himself a “committed, America First conservative,” Fry said Rice has lost touch with his voters.
“He has forgotten who sent him to Washington and where he came from,” Fry said.
But Rice has not run away from his vote.
“Obviously I do stand by my impeachment vote,” Rice told CNN. “I don’t think it was a brave decision. I thought it was the right decision. It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing.”
Asked whether he feared it would cost him his election in the primary on Tuesday, he replied: “I don’t think it will cost me my election, but if doing the right thing costs me my election, then I’ll wear it like a badge.”
At a campaign stop Monday near Pawley’s Island, just south of his hometown Myrtle Beach, the 64-year-old congressman held forth about gas prices, inflation and the elephant in the room: impeachment.
One man thanked him for what he called a brave vote.
‘Anybody who thinks they can put Nancy in a box, they’re wrong’
A similar dynamic is happening in the neighboring 1st District. A first-term Republican, the 44-year-old Mace did not vote for impeachment but has nonetheless earned the wrath of Trump for voting to certify the 2020 election in one of her first actions as a member of Congress.
At an event Sunday in Summerville, north of Charleston, Mace told CNN that she does not regret that certification vote.
“I’m a constitutional conservative,” Mace said in an interview. “I voted with folks like Rand Paul, Mike Lee and Sen. Tim Scott to preserve the Constitution because what we couldn’t do is allow one person — the vice president of the United States — to single-handedly overturn the Electoral College and the results of a presidential election.”
But Trump’s ire from that vote in early January 2021 did not abate even after Mace voted against impeachment weeks later. He endorsed former state Rep. Katie Arrington, a intraparty rival of Mace’s from their time in the legislature. This is the 51-year-old Arrington’s second effort to unseat a Republican incumbent, after her successful bid in 2018 to defeat Rep. Mark Sanford in the primary.
While Arrington ran as the more pro-Trump candidate in that race, her embrace of the controversial President hurt her in the general election that year, when she lost to Democrat Joe Cunningham. Cunningham would go on to lose reelection to Mace in 2020.
“This is a swing district and she lost it,” Mace told CNN Sunday. “I had to go win it back.”
Those recent swings of the district, which is based around Charleston but stretches up and down the coastal communities of the state’s Lowcountry region, indicate the limits of running as a fully pro-Trump candidate when the electorate has more moderate GOP voters.
In Bluffton, a town near the resort community of Hilton Head, Jack and Cindy Hill said they decided to support Mace after seeing an Arrington ad that featured Trump prominently.
“We kind of made up our mind once we saw that ad,” Jack Hill told CNN on Monday. “We see it all the time.”
“I just can’t vote for somebody who calls names,” said Cindy Hill, who noted she and her husband don’t always vote for Republicans but will be doing so Tuesday. She added that she much preferred the Mace ad featuring former South Carolina governor and Trump’s United Nations ambassador, Nikki Haley.
“It’s very nice. There’s no name calling,” she said.
The congresswoman’s campaign is hoping that Haley, who appeared for Mace in Summerville on Sunday and in Hilton Head on Monday, can allay any lingering concerns among conservatives.
“Nancy Mace is tough as nails,” Haley said in Summerville. “What I love about Nancy, she is not a pushover. You may not agree with 100% of everything she does, but she’s fighting for you every day.”
Haley did not mention Trump by name — and walked away as reporters tried to ask her questions — but she acknowledged the balancing act Mace has sought to maintain amidst Trump’s anger.
“Whether it’s establishment Republicans or the resistance Republicans,” Haley said, “anybody who thinks they can put Nancy in a box, they’re wrong.”
Voters speak out
While Trump has a strong following in South Carolina, a state he easily carried twice, conversations with voters revealed similar sentiments found across a string of primary contests last month, where Trump supporters were more than happy to ignore his endorsements and make their own decisions.
“He misspeaks a lot,” said John McAuley, a Republican from Summerville. “I like him. I think he was a good president, but I don’t agree with him coming in and trying to force this election because he didn’t like what Nancy did.”
Margaret Emmans, a Republican who came to see Mace and Haley on Sunday, did not mince words.
“I would not follow his lead,” Emmans said of the former President’s endorsement of Arrington. “I don’t know that it will have any effect on the race. I’m a Trump supporter and I’m also a big — very big — Nancy Mace supporter.”
Joe Craft, a longtime Republican voter who lives near Charleston, praised Mace for having “a voting record perfect for conservatives.” He said he believes she did the right thing voting to certify the election.
“It’s more about the candidate who will put the country first,” Craft said, “rather than a relationship with President Trump.”
And Cindy Hill, in Bluffton, was even more blunt.
“We need better Republicans to stand up to Trump,” she said.
Rice said he believed the outcome of his primary race in the 7th District would offer a signal of the direction of the Republican Party.
“I think Donald Trump is the past and we need to move on,” Rice said, speaking aloud the words that many Republicans only say in private. “I think he was a very consequential president. He got a lot of good things done, he lifted a lot of people, but I think he’s the past. We need to move on to elect somebody else. The next president, I believe, needs to be somebody who will pull America together rather than ripping it apart.”
But plenty of Republican voters in South Carolina not only love what Trump did as president, but see elected officials who oppose him as part of the problem. Ken Ard, the former Republican lieutenant governor who is from Florence County, expressed the view at Fry’s Monday event.
“We have disagreements amongst Republicans,” Ard said. “But there’s a movement afoot in this party called America First. I’ve not sold my soul to Donald Trump. I’ve sold my political soul to America First. I believe it with every fiber of my being. And those son of a guns who tried to run Donald Trump out of town from the day he got there, Tom Rice voted with them as Donald Trump was leaving. That’s a bridge too far for me.”
Mary Foxworth, a voter from Florence who says she’s supporting Fry, put it more succinctly.
“We just want someone who will support Trump,” she said.