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Tuesday’s balloting in South Carolina marks the first test of whether a House Republican who voted to impeach Donald Trump can win renomination over the ex-President’s objections. The voting may also reveal some 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 incendiary rhetoric, inaction, and indifference about the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington were sufficient reasons to remove him from office and ban his return to politics. The group has become a lonely fraternity inside the Republican Party, and four of the 10 opted to retire rather than test Trump’s hold on the base. Five of the remaining six drew Trump-endorsed primary challengers, and it’s not clear whether any of them can survive. (California’s David Valadao seemed to have fallen off Trump’s radar and appears to have done well enough in last week’s primary to secure a spot on the November ballot.)
Rice on Tuesday becomes the first of the group of 10 in a competitive primary to test whether what Rice calls Trump’s “revenge circus” is run by Trump the ringmaster or Trump the clown.
In a separate race in South Carolina, incumbent Rep. Nancy Mace also faces a MAGA-style challenger. Mace voted against Trump’s impeachment, 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 get right by Trump and moderated her criticism, but the former president was having none of it. (As an added bit of 2024 drama, a potential Trump rival for the GOP presidential nomination is former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and she is campaigning with Mace, whose district stretches from Charleston to Hilton Head.)
Rice and his challenger, state Rep. Russell Fry, seem to be running completely different playbooks in South Carolina, with strategists in both parties watching carefully to see which prevails as they sketch plans for the state’s expected First in the South primary in 2024. Rice is running as an old-school country-club Republican, the type of candidate who talks about dollars brought home 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 a consequential figure in the country’s history, but precisely that: a figure from the past. And when confronted over his impeachment vote, he says he’d do it again—and this time he would drop his opposition to certifying Biden’s win, too.
Fry, by contrast, is making Trump the litmus test for service. Disloyalty toward Trump’s brand of burn-it-down politics demands an ouster. Even though Rice was instrumental in writing Trump’s tax cuts, Fry casts him as little more than a back-stabbing opportunist who is part of the Trump-era slur The Swamp. And even though Rice actually voted against certifying the results of the 2020 election—he cites Pennsylvania’s irregularities—Trump still called him a RINO during a telerally last week for Fry and state Rep. Katie Arrington, who is running against Mace.
Mace, meanwhile, is playing up how she has represented her district during her freshman term. She had been in Washington only a few days when the Jan. 6 mob attacked the Capitol, and she doesn’t linger on her reaction that day. Instead, she’s pointing to her libertarian record and hoping advisers like former Rep. Mick Mulvaney are right when they say voters tend to stick with what they know.
South Carolina’s politics are always among the nastiest, most gut-based in the country. It’s a state seemingly made for Trump’s approach to the field, a Republican electorate that rewards grit and contempt. An April poll of South Carolina residents found 77% of self-identified Republicans believed the 2020 election was unfairly and inaccurately decided, and Trump had an 89% approval among Republicans. (Sticking with the 2024 implications for a beat, Haley stands at 82% approval, so still potentially competitive in a state that historically has proven to carry outsized power in picking nominees.)
All of which is to say Rice may be in for a tricky night. Under South Carolina law, if no candidate tops 50%, the race goes to a June 28 runoff, giving both him and Fry a two-week window to reset and narrow the field. Polling is hard to come by in the state, but one Republican-leaning survey found Fry ahead by 17 points but still stopped at 42%, suggesting a runoff that will double as the de facto general election given the district is seen as solidly Republican. The same pollsters found Mace up 5 points in her primary; her district, too, is one that tends to be red, having had just one Democrat hold the seat for a single two-year term since 1981.
Trump’s record for endorsements to this point has been one of success in open races or with incumbents, and a less rosy one when he’s working with challengers. Four of his challengers fell on May 24 in Georgia’s primary, and another lost in Idaho. While his pattern may seem random, as TIME’s Brian Bennett has reported, Trump’s advisers defend it as the most potent tool in politics. Tuesday’s balloting along the South Carolina coastal communities and their inland neighbors may provide yet further evidence in that case.
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