Former President Donald Trump made a request of South Carolina voters this week for his 76th birthday, which falls on the same date as the state’s primary elections: deliver him “a beautiful, beautiful birthday present” in the form of two victories he’s had circled on his calendar for some time.
But when the state’s voters choose nominees on Tuesday, the former president may not get all he wants.
Trump has two goals in mind: the ousters of GOP incumbents Tom Rice and Nancy Mace, two members of Congress whom he has deemed insufficiently loyal.
Rice, a self-styled “Chamber of Commerce” Republican who represents the 7th Congressional District in the northeastern part of the state, was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump and has said he has no regrets. Mace, a libertarian-leaning member from the Lowcountry’s 1st Congressional District, rebuked Trump after the Capitol riot but didn’t vote for impeachment and soon tempered her criticism.
In hopes of replacing them, Trump has backed state Rep. Russell Fry against Rice and former state Rep. Katie Arrington against Mace. Polling shows Fry with a significant lead over Rice — but, with many candidates in the race, not a large enough lead to avoid a runoff — as well as Mace’s besting Arrington in their two-person race.
The contests will be the biggest test of Trump’s endorsement strength this month after earlier elections in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia and North Carolina provided him with a mix of big wins and stinging defeats. Although Trump’s brand of politics remains the dominant strain within the Republican Party, South Carolina could be the next case of voters who otherwise approve of him choosing to go their own way in selecting local representatives rather than heeding Trump’s advice.
“Politics is still, at the end of the day, local,” said Trump’s former acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who is backing Mace. “And if people like their incumbent representative, whether it’s a governor or a senator or House member, they’re still more likely than not to keep them.
“I honestly think a lot of Republicans — House members especially — who chose not to run instead of going up against the Trump endorsement are probably kicking themselves,” he added. “They probably had more of a chance than they thought.”
In an interview, Mace predicted a lopsided result in her contest Tuesday, which mirrors how most of Trump’s candidates fared against incumbents in Georgia’s closely watched primaries this month. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who earned the then-president’s ire for refusing to help him subvert the 2020 election results in the state, thrashed Trump-backed challenger David Perdue by 50 points.
“You’re seeing in our election what folks saw in Georgia,” she said, adding she is “working hard” to ensure such a finish. “Now, we’re not going to have a 70-30 margin, but I think it’s closer to 60-40.”
South Carolina presents Trump with his next opportunity to do something he has so far failed to accomplish: knock off an incumbent Republican at the ballot box. While Trump has had far better fortunes endorsing candidates in open contests, he has watched voters in Idaho and Georgia in recent weeks reject five challengers he backed. He has yet to pick up a victory in such a scenario this cycle, although some Republicans he sought to oust opted to retire rather than face voters.
Speaking for roughly 10 minutes at a tele-rally for both Fry and Arrington on Tuesday, Trump called the races “two of the most critical primary elections this year,” asking voters to “give me a birthday present, please. Two birthday presents.”
He said Arrington is “fighting hard” while Fry is “leading by a lot.” He denigrated Rice as a “backstabbing RINO,” which stands for “Republican in name only,” saying that by voting for impeachment, Rice “lifted up his hand and that was the end of his political career. Or we hope it was.”
But Trump, a cable news obsessive, seemed most aggrieved by Mace’s frequent appearances on Fox News.
“She is on Fox all of the time,” he said, reasoning that that was because former House Speaker Paul Ryan, now on the board of Fox Corp., is a fan of hers. “Nancy Mace, on all the time. But I think the people can see through it.”
Rice said in an interview that he felt voters would recognize his work on the Trump-era tax cuts, trade, local infrastructure and constituent services and value those contributions more than what he dubbed Trump’s “traveling revenge tour.”
“I think Trump is the past and we need to move on to the future,” Rice said, naming, among others, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence as people who would be “great” presidents and future leaders of the party.
There was zero second-guessing of his impeachment vote, which may single-handedly end his congressional career: “Win, lose or draw, I did the right thing, and I know I did the right thing.”
“The president watched the riots going on on TV in the White House, happy that these people were doing his bidding and following up and doing all this for him,” he said, adding: “I can’t think of any president who has ever done anything worse in terms of government. That was as low as you can get, and I thought he should be held accountable for that. I believed it then, and I believe it now.”
A senior adviser to Fry’s campaign, Matt Moore, a former state GOP chairman, said he felt Rice’s choice to go “all in” on his impeachment vote in the campaign’s closing weeks only further sealed his fate.
He’s “going out in a blaze of glory,” Moore said.
In Rice’s district, Roger Slagle, the chairman of the Horry County Republican Party, said that Trump’s backing was “quite important” and that voters in his neck of the woods “really, really respect Donald Trump” and his time in office.
“And they look at it and say: ‘Well, that’s great. Does Donald Trump really know all the nuances of what’s going on here in Horry County, South Carolina, or District 7?’” he said, pointing to non-Fry and Rice candidates who performed well in his county’s straw poll, leading him to believe they might get bigger chunks of the vote than other surveys show. “I think you will see people that will still be as loyal to Donald Trump who end up rejecting his endorsed candidate.”
Independent polling of the races is limited. A survey of likely voters conducted by Basswood Research for Winning for Women Action Fund, which is backing Mace, found her with a 20-point lead over Arrington. The conservative polling firm Trafalgar found Mace with a 6-point lead over Arrington last month. The same firm found Fry leading Rice by 42.2 percent to 24.9 percent.
Rice and Mace have outspent their opponents on the airwaves, according to AdImpact tracking data.
Each race has a different flavor. Mace’s public criticism of Trump has been limited since she first condemned his “words and actions” contributing to the Capitol riot. Rice, hailing from a district that is considerably more Republican than Mace’s, has strongly stood by his impeachment vote and has not minced words about the former president.
“I don’t believe you can compare the two,” Dorchester County GOP Chairman Steven Wright said, noting that both Mace and Arrington seek to lay claim to the Trump policy agenda, while Rice has said Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., would make a good House speaker. “Now, if he were interested in winning an election, he would not even dare to say those things.”
Arrington, who won a 2018 primary to unseat the then-Trump target Rep. Mark Sanford before she lost the general election that fall, echoed Wright.
“I don’t even think Rice’s polling at 24 percent,” she said. “People are not happy that he voted to impeach the president. And Russell’s obviously strong ahead in the polls. But this couldn’t be two [more] different races. This is not about the impeachment, right? This is about Nancy Mace turning her back on the district.”
Because Mace did not vote for impeachment, Arrington has sought to paint her as someone who is not focused on issues of great importance to conservatives. Mace has countered that Arrington is not fiscally conservative and is not the best choice to help deal with issues like inflation and national security.
“Endorsements only go so far,” Mace said. “Policy matters to voters. And they care about the future of our country, because they’re worried about inflation, they’re worried about the price of food, they’re worried about the price of gas, they’re worried about our national security, and they want candidates that they can support that will be with them on the issues that matter.”
In a prominent early primary in the presidential nominating process, victory or defeat in South Carolina has added importance with other members of the party eyeing presidential bids and weighing Trump’s continued influence as he looks all but certain to make another White House run.
That has also meant national involvement in the race — and not just from Trump. Mace got backing from former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who served under Trump and is widely admired in the state. Paul Ryan, meanwhile, made a campaign stop in support of Rice, who also won the backing of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Stumping last week for Rice, who took over his seat on the House Ways and Means Committee, Ryan drew national attention — and Trump’s ire — when he told a crowd of supporters: “There were a lot of people who wanted to vote like Tom but who just didn’t have the guts to do it.”
For Trump, any shortcoming has a chance of marring a birthday celebration.
“If he beats Tom Rice and doesn’t beat Nancy Mace, then the press will all be about how he didn’t beat Nancy Mace,” Mulvaney said. “He knows that.”