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Trump is trying to oust one of South Carolina's rising GOP stars

"This race is a bellwether for Trump’s influence," a South Carolina Republican strategist said.
Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., walks at the Capitol on May 20, 2021.
Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., on her way to the Capitol on May 20.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images file

SUMMERVILLE, S.C. — Donald Trump, enraged by pointed criticism from the Republican representing South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, endorsed Katie Arrington with the hopes of ridding the party of a libertarian-leaning member who was one of few dissenting voices when it came to Trump's fitness to lead.

The year was 2018. The congressman was Mark Sanford, who had become increasingly critical of Trump for his conduct in office. Arrington, then a state representative, was backed in hopes of toppling Sanford. She did in the June primary, only to lose the election in the fall.

The dynamic seems to be repeating itself four years later. 

Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., ousted the Democrat to win the seat and has gone on to irk the former president, criticizing his role in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Trump has again endorsed Arrington to rid the House of another critic in the competitive suburban district around Charleston.

"He’s doing it again, because he doesn’t care," former Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., an anti-Trump Republican, said. "He didn’t care about losing that seat. He came to the conference and crowed about it because he didn’t care about winning the general election, he just cares about revenge. And now he’s doing it again."

But that may be where the similarities between 2018 and now end, according to interviews with both candidates, supporters and strategists following the South Carolina race. 

Sanford, who had his own complicated political past, was part of the Republican Party’s pre-Trump era; Mace fashions herself as a face of the party’s future. Sanford was seen as not taking the primary challenge seriously enough and not mounting a vigorous campaign; Mace plans to unload millions from her war chest. And while Sanford seemed to be on an island fighting Trump at the height of the former president’s power, Mace is getting help from former Trump officials and South Carolina political powerhouses in their own right, including Mick Mulvaney and Nikki Haley — the former governor and possible 2024 presidential candidate.

"This race is a bellwether for Trump’s influence," a South Carolina Republican strategist told NBC News.

‘I didn’t watch’

At a town hall here last week, Mace discussed the war in Ukraine, inflation and increased gas prices. She touted bipartisan legislation on veterans issues and the ban on imports of Russian oil.

One subject that didn’t arise was the former president, who rallied supporters just outside Mace's district in Florence two days prior, calling Mace "crazy" and "a terrible person." Arrington described Mace as "the Liz Cheney of the South," invoking the Wyoming Republican who has become the most vocal critic of Trump in the party.

"I didn’t watch" the rally, Mace said in an interview following her town hall. She said she spent that day at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, promoting her States Reform Act, legislation that would end "federal interference" in state cannabis laws.

"This district is different," she added. "I don’t think it’s like the rest of the country. We march to the beat of our own drum. We want someone who’s going to be an independent voice."

In the immediate aftermath of a pro-Trump mob’s Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Mace became one of Trump’s most vocal critics. Unlike Sanford, who’s criticism ratcheted up as Trump’s term went on, Mace’s had quickly tapered off. 

She was the only House Republican from South Carolina to uphold the 2020 election results and signed a letter, along with fellow Republican Reps. Chip Roy and Dan Crenshaw, both of Texas, and John Curtis, of Utah, condemning Trump for "the words and actions" that contributed to the riot. 

She told NBC’s "Meet the Press" she wanted "to be a new voice for the Republican Party and that’s one of the reasons I’ve spoken out so strongly against the president, against these QAnon conspiracy theorists that led us in a constitutional crisis."

Then she opposed Trump’s impeachment, voted against establishing an independent commission to investigate the riot and voted to oust Cheney from House GOP leadership. She did, however, vote to find Steve Bannon, a former Trump White House adviser, in contempt for failing to comply with a subpoena from the House select committee investigating the riot.

After Trump announced his endorsement of Arrington, Mace released a video of herself outside Trump Tower in New York City promoting his policies and explaining her past support for him.

"I think [voters] know Katie is conservative," Barbara Nielsen, a Republican activist in Beaufort County, who backs Arrington, said in an interview. "Sometimes I don’t think they know where Nancy is."

Ed Haraway, 69, said he attended the Mace town hall because of their similar values.

"While I voted for Trump the last two times, I feel at the end he got a little wacko," Haraway, who moved to the district in 2019, said. "And I think Nancy has been a voice of reason."

Arrington, in an interview from her home in Summerville, said it was Trump’s support that helped Mace defeat Democratic Rep. Joe Cunningham in 2020 by one point. 

"Nancy Mace, Nikki Haley and Mick Mulvaney, they read the room wrong," Arrington said. "And I think Nancy thought that he would fade away and you know, separating herself from him would be a good thing. She realized it was a really, really, really bad idea."

Polling in the race has been limited. An unattributed survey published by The State last month found Mace with a 15-point edge over Arrington with respondents aware of Trump's endorsement. This month, an Arrington campaign poll also found Mace with a 15-point advantage — but one that shifted in Arrington’s favor when voters were "informed" of Trump’s backing.

When it comes to fundraising, Mace is amassing a large war chest. Last year, she brought in roughly $3 million. At a lunch with Haley ahead of Trump’s rally — in which the former governor said Mace "will never let you down" — Mace secured $300,000 in donations. 

Mace said the fundraising reports will show a "stark difference" in the primary, set for June 14. Arrington, who’s first filing will come in April, isn’t worried.

"Puffering is part of Nancy’s mantra. She can raise money, but she’s also alienated her base," Arrington said, before invoking a Southernism intended as an insult: "Spend your money, sweetheart. Bless your heart, spend away."

The campaign battle

When Arrington decided to run again this year, she entered the race as the first Republican to lose in the district in 40 years.

"She’s not the best candidate by any stretch of imagination," Mulvaney, Trump’s former chief of staff who also represented South Carolina in the U.S. House, said of Arrington. "And I guess it’s enough for Donald Trump that she’s not Nancy Mace."

Arrington, who was sidelined for weeks in 2018 after a horrific car accident, said she sees the two races completely differently. 

In 2018, Democrats were energized by opposition to Trump’s presidency, and she was unable to effectively campaign in the race’s final stretch. This year the momentum appears to instead be boosting Republicans, and the new congressional maps in South Carolina — pending litigation — will make the 1st Congressional District lean more to the right.

Democrats, meanwhile, believe an Arrington victory gives them better odds of flipping the seat this fall.

"Oh, I think if Arrington wins, we pick the seat back up," South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson said.

Arrington has said her top priorities include dismantling the Department of Education, impeaching President Joe Biden and completing Trump’s border wall. She said the biggest issues differentiating her and Mace aren’t policy but the incumbent’s votes that ran counter to Trump, including upholding the 2020 election results and her vocally assigning blame to Trump for Jan. 6. 

A former Defense Department official, Arrington also accused Mace of being responsible for the war in Ukraine because she voted to uphold the election, suggesting that Russian President Vladimir Putin wouldn’t have mounted an unprovoked invasion had Congress overturned the 2020 election and kept Trump in office.

Mace, the first female graduate of The Citadel and a former Waffle House server, has promoted support from conservative groups that consider her more fiscally conservative. And she said she’s the only candidate who has secured a legislative achievement — pointing to legislation she championed while in the South Carolina legislature modeled after the First Step Act, which Trump signed — in addition to a handful of bills she’s managed to advance out of the Democratic-controlled House.

She is also criticizing Arrington over allegations that she disclosed classified information while working at the Pentagon. Her attorney said she was alleged to have made the disclosure to an unauthorized defense contractor. Arrington resigned from the Defense Department, which suspended her security clearance, in protest and settled a lawsuit with the Pentagon. Arrington said the suspension was "politically influenced" and the result of a "deep state" plot.

There’s no love lost between the two from their time spent together in the South Carolina statehouse — though Arrington and the Mace campaigns said each candidate would support the other should she lose the primary. Mace expressed frustration with Arrington for refusing to co-sponsor an offshore drilling ban she proposed and said Arrington "torpedoed" a bill Mace introduced after recent mass shootings that would have prevented the killers from being able to legally purchase guns. Arrington, who said the two were suite mates in the state Capitol, said Mace voted "for how she thought it would look best for her future job."

Though Mace burst onto the political scene being critical of Trump, Mulvaney said he "always wondered why he’s got a bee in his bonnet over her in the same way as he does the people who voted for impeachment." 

Mace does appear frequently on Fox News.

"Yeah, that’s true," Mulvaney said ahead of Trump's rally. "She’s on Fox and he’s going to see her."

Trump made that clear in a Thursday statement.

"Fox News," he said, "is putting on the terrible Nancy Mace of South Carolina at every opportunity they get."