FLORENCE, S.C. – Under pressure recently to prove her loyalty to Donald Trump, Rep. Nancy Mace traveled to New York and filmed a social media video outside Trump Tower reminding her South Carolina constituents that she was one of the former president's “earliest supporters."
Facing similar scrutiny, Rep. Tom Rice has taken a different approach, quietly winding through rural stretches of his congressional district to remind voters of his work securing federal relief for frequent — often disastrous — flooding, and of his advocacy for agricultural improvements.
Lifelong Republicans representing neighboring congressional districts in one of the most reliably GOP states in the U.S., Mace and Rice are unlikely players in the fierce debate over the future of their party. But they're both facing spirited primary challenges this summer from Trump-backed rivals that could signal the former president's grip on the party as he weighs another White House bid. The primary is June 14.
The focus on Mace and Rice intensified Saturday night as Trump held a rally in Florence, South Carolina, cheered their primary rivals and laced into them as being insufficiently loyal with pointed, personal attacks.
“You currently have two atrocious RINOs, they’re bad people, in the House who went to Washington, sold you out, and partnered with the Democrats to stab the Republican Party and frankly to stab our country in the back,” Trump said, using the acronym for “Republican in name only."
“He is respected by no one,” Trump said of Rice, whom he called “a disaster" who is “laughed at in Washington.”
Mace, Trump said, is “crazy" and “a terrible person” who “has no idea what she’s doing,” drawing loud boos from the crowd.
“Thankfully this June you have the chance to dump these grandstanding losers and replace them with two rock-solid, America first champions," he said.
For Rice, the sin was his support for Trump's second impeachment in the aftermath of the violent Jan. 6 insurrection ignited by the then-president. Mace, meanwhile, drew the ire of Trump and his backers by voting to certify President Joe Biden's win in the 2020 election, as well as her support for holding Steve Bannon in contempt of Congress, her frequent television appearances blaming Trump for the insurrection and her ties to a top Trump critic, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo.
Before Trump's visit, both said their focus was on reminding voters of what they've accomplished.
“I’ve delivered hundreds of millions of dollars to this district, for disaster relief, tax credits, PPP loans, beachfront renourishment, roads,” Rice said in an interview. “I think if I remind people of that ... then I will rest on their verdict. Whatever verdict they give is what we’ll do.”
Mace, meanwhile, has touted her support for Trump's economic and foreign policies.
“I’m the only candidate in this race that has a record that is reflective of the policies that he supports,” Mace said in an interview.
Together, the pair represent South Carolina's nearly 200-mile coastline. But the contours of their districts offer different political challenges.
Mace, for instance, represents a red-leaning district anchored in Charleston and its booming suburbs, home to a mixture of moderate Republicans, Democrats and Trump loyalists. She's used that to her advantage by warning that a Democrat could carry the district if Republicans nominate someone too far to the right.
She has history on her side. In 2018, Katie Arrington, her Trump-endorsed rival, successfully knocked off incumbent GOP Rep. Mark Sanford, who was sometimes an antagonist to the then-president. But Arrington went on to lose the general election to Democrat Joe Cunningham, a stinging loss for the GOP.
Mace took back the district in 2020, and Cunningham is now waging an uphill campaign for governor.
In the video outside Trump Tower, Mace called out Arrington's 2018 loss and said she's “more than qualified” to lose the seat again to a Democrat.
Arrington called Mace “a sellout” who “is more interested in being a mainstream media celebrity than fighting for the people she is supposed to represent.” Endorsing Arrington, Trump called Mace “an absolutely terrible candidate” and “very disloyal” to the Republican Party.
Rice, meanwhile, is running in a more reliably Republican district that stretches from the golf courses of Myrtle Beach to inland farms and communities like Florence. He's facing off against several rivals, including Russell Fry, a Republican state representative backed by Trump who has said Rice broke constituents’ trust when he supported impeachment.
To Rice, seeking his sixth term means a lot of travel through the district to remind constituents of what he sees as his legislative achievements. But he knows that some voters will only think of his impeachment vote, for which he was censured by the state party.
“I’m going to do my best to explain (the vote) to them, and I don’t have to be confrontational to do that,” he said. “That’s how politics is supposed to be.”
Rice has said his best defense is the same kind of campaigning that’s won him five terms in the district that Trump carried by nearly 20 points in 2020.
"I’ve had some people come to me and say, ‘I was disappointed in your vote,’" Rice said, noting that he feels a lot of voter animosity has waned over the past year. "But 10 times as many have said, 'Thank you.'"
Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.