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Tuesday’s ballot in South Carolina marks the first test of whether a House Republican who voted to impeach Donald Trump can win renomination despite the ex-president’s objections. The vote may also reveal lessons for the 2024 primaries that could prove more dynamic than many anticipate.
Rep. Tom Rice is one of 10 GOP members in the House who joined Democrats in deciding that Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, inaction and indifference over the Jan. 6 uprising in Washington were sufficient grounds to remove him from office and prohibit his return to politics. The group became a lonely brotherhood within the Republican Party, and four of the 10 chose to retire rather than test Trump’s grip on the base. Five of the other six have drawn major Trump-endorsed challengers, and it’s unclear if any of them can survive. (California’s David Valadao seems to have disappeared from Trump’s radar and appears to have done well enough in last week’s primary to secure a place in the November ballot.)
Rice on Tuesday becomes the first of 10 in a competitive primary to test whether what Rice calls Trump’s “revenge circus” is led by Trump the Ringmaster or Trump the Clown.
In a separate race in South Carolina, outgoing representative Nancy Mace also faces a MAGA-style challenger. Mace voted against impeaching Trump, but only after criticizing Trump’s behavior that day and voting to certify that Joe Biden had indeed won the 2020 election. She tried to catch up with Trump and moderated her criticism, but the former president had none of it. (In addition to the 2024 drama, a potential rival to Trump for the GOP presidential nomination is former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and she’s campaigning with Mace, whose district stretches from Charleston to Hilton Head. .)
Rice and her challenger, State Rep. Russell Fry, appear to be running completely different playbooks in South Carolina, with strategists on both sides watching closely to see what prevails as they sketch out plans for the first primary. expected from the state in 2024. Rice is running as an old-school country-club Republican, the type of candidate who talks about bringing home dollars for federal projects like bridges and beaches in a district that includes Myrtle Beach and went for Trump by 19 points in 2020. A five-term incumbent, Rice casts Trump as an important figure in the country’s history, but precisely that: a figure of the past. And when faced with his impeachment vote, he says he would do it again — and this time he would also drop his opposition to certifying Biden’s victory.
Fry, on the other hand, makes Trump the litmus test for the service. Disloyalty to Trump’s burning policy demands ousting. Even though Rice was instrumental in drafting Trump’s tax cuts, Fry portrays him as little more than a backstabbing opportunist who is part of the Trump-era insult The Swamp. And even though Rice actually voted against certification of the 2020 election results — he cites Pennsylvania irregularities — Trump still called him a RINO during a conference call last week for Fry and the US rep. State Katie Arrington, who is running against Mace.
Mace, meanwhile, talks about how she represented her district during her first term. She had only been in Washington for a few days when the Jan. 6 mob attacked the Capitol, and she doesn’t dwell on her reaction that day. Instead, she points to her libertarian record and hopes advisers like former Rep. Mick Mulvaney are right when they say voters tend to stick with what they know.
South Carolina politics are still among the meanest and most instinctive in the country. It’s a state seemingly made for Trump’s on-the-ground approach, a Republican electorate that rewards courage and contempt. An April poll of South Carolina residents found that 77% of self-identified Republicans believed the 2020 election was decided unfairly and inaccurately, and Trump had 89% approval among Republicans. (Stick to the implications of 2024 for a beat, Haley sits at 82% approval, so still potentially competitive in a state that has historically proven to have outsized power in selecting nominees.)
All that to say that Rice might have a rough night. Under South Carolina law, if no candidate tops 50%, the race will go ahead on June 28, giving him and Fry a two-week window to reset and narrow the field. Polls are hard to come by in the state, but a Republican-leaning survey found Fry ahead 17 points but still stopped at 42%, suggesting a runoff that will double as the de facto general election being given that the district is considered solidly Republican. The same pollsters found Mace up 5 points in his primary; his district is also one that tends to be red, having had only one Democrat for a single two-year term since 1981.
Trump’s record for endorsements at this point has been success in open races or with incumbents, and a less rosy one when working with challengers. Four of his challengers fell on May 24 in the Georgia primary and another lost in Idaho. Although his model may seem hit-or-miss, as TIME’s Brian Bennett reported, Trump’s advisers defend him as the most powerful tool in politics. Tuesday’s polling along coastal South Carolina communities and their inland neighbors may provide further evidence in this case.
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