One race followed Trump, the other did not. Why two coastal congressional districts separated. | Palmetto Politics
MYRTLE BEACH — Four miles from the neon signs of the boardwalk, Congressman Tom Rice prepared to meet his fate.
Surrounded by several dozen supporters and a battery of national television cameras, Rice focused on the people who supported him for more than a year after his polarizing vote to impeach then-President Donald Trump. It was the last night of a grueling campaign to defend his seat.
The rice failed.
Russell Fry, a South Carolina state legislator and Trump’s hand-picked candidate to oust Rice from office, had won the coveted GOP nomination for the 7th congressional district in a landslide.
Fry would celebrate where Rice was not.
“Today the conservatives of the Republican Party won,” Fry said on his election night at the Tiki Bar on 8th Avenue, not far from Rice’s joyless party. “Today Donald Trump won.”
Flip that with what was happening just 95 miles south in suburban Mount Pleasant inside a white tent on the 18th hole of a golf course.
Nancy Mace was celebrating her victory by defending her 1st congressional district where Republicans rejected both Trump and his endorsed candidate, Katie Arrington.
“I promised when I ran in 2020 that I would be an independent voice,” Mace said to cheers. “I promised not to toe the party line.”
So why did one House Republican in South Carolina survive Trump’s wrath while the other fell in last week’s primary?
It starts with the districts themselves and how each offers a unique window into the attitudes of two distinct voting blocs within the modern Republican Party: the suburban, well-educated 1st District and the working-class, agrarian 7th District.
MAGA country vs club country
Both congressional districts border the Atlantic Ocean and are centered around two major population centers: Myrtle Beach in the 7th and Charleston in the 1st.
Both have also traditionally been represented by conservative politicians. But that’s where the differences end and the nuance begins.
Where the 1st District is defined by large swaths of a suburban and wealthy-retired class as far south as Hilton Head Island, the 7th District stretches beyond the Myrtle Beach and county limits from Horry to more rural pockets of the state around Florence and the Pee Dee area, home to some of Palmetto State’s poorest counties.
When it comes to politics, though both districts are reliably Republican, the type of GOP voters who live there couldn’t be more different.
While most 1st District voters have historically elected Republicans with a more independent and libertarian streak, 7th District voters are drawn to GOP candidates who have come to embrace Trump’s brand of politics that speaks to what voters in this disgruntled region often want to do it themselves. : Breaking the mold of Washington, DC, and speaking tough to those they think deserve it.
“The 7th District is much more of a Trump-style district than the 1st District,” said Matt Moore, a former SC GOP chairman who worked as a senior adviser on Fry’s campaign.
“In fact, the 7th District is one of the most pro-Trump districts in the Southeast, if not America,” he added.
In 2020, Trump won the district by seven points more than in the Charleston-rooted Lowcountry, sparking renewed rural enthusiasm.
Between 2019 and 2021, attendance at GOP meetings in Chesterfield County increased by 420%, according to data provided by the Republican Party of South Carolina.
In Dillon County, participation increased by 400%. In Darlington, it was 333%. And where turnout was down statewide in the 2022 primaries, rural counties in the 7th District saw turnout rise.
Darlington County Republican Party Chairman JD Chaplin points to the 2020 presidential election as an inflection point.
“That’s when a ton of people who had never voted before showed up to vote for Trump. And you can see that. They didn’t vote against it. They wanted to push that button. They wanted to vote for Trump,” Chaplin said.
Fry’s victory was a stunning surprise based purely on the huge margin. He garnered 51% of the vote in the seven-man ranking and avoided a runoff; Rice was far behind with 25%.
The story of Trump’s influence in the 1st District is very different. He won the region by 13 points in 2016 but saw his margins nearly halved in 2020, beating Biden by just 6 points.
Importantly, some observers around the state have said that, unlike Rice, Mace did not vote to impeach Trump.
The different Trump factors
Both Rice and Mace have faced major challenges from the GOP right flank for perceived transgressions against Trump, who last fall called on “good and smart” Republicans to run against them.
Rice found himself facing a political tribunal in his home state after voting to impeach Trump for instigating the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Rice was later censured by the SC GOP for his vote.
Mace, on the other hand, became one of Trump’s most vocal Republican critics in the aftermath of the riot when she told national media that “Trump’s entire legacy had been wiped out” by the chaos of that day. -the. She also voted to certify the results of the 2020 election.
Those accolades — slight as they were — allowed Fry to distill his message into tight slogans that spoke of Rice’s betrayal, such as when he implored his supporters at a March 12 Trump rally in Florence to “impeach Tom Rice”.
For Arrington, it was a tougher challenge.
In her opening address to voters in a 2-minute video, Arrington had to stick to a broader message when she said Mace “sold out President Trump,” later going so far as to state that Mace was “the Liz Cheney of the South”.
Rob Godfrey, a former spokesman for former Gov. Nikki Haley, said it wasn’t just the impeachment vote itself, but it was how Fry could talk about it more fully freely that was doing a winning question in the 7th.
“Not only does such a deciding vote land with a punch, but for Tom Rice, it landed with a knockout punch,” Godfrey said.
In the 1st, Mace also had help defending his turf in a way that Rice didn’t. At least nine conservative groups, including six super PACs, have spent nearly $2 million trying to sway Republican voters with direct mail, TV ads, digital spots and text messages.
The majority of these messages were either for Mace or against Arrington, and when they hit Arrington it was mainly over two issues: the suspension of her security clearance while working at the Department of Defense and her vote at the State House in 2017 to raise the gas tax.
The gas tax messages were particularly effective, according to the Mace campaign, as they landed in mailboxes and played on television at a time when inflation was soaring and gas prices continued to climb ahead of the summer beach season – a major economic driver along the coast.
“But we’ve also seen a lot of the mail about the former president’s sale, and we’ve seen which of the people cared the most,” McCubbin said.
In the 7th, the only outside spending for Rice came from a PAC that attempted to tie Fry to Democratic figures like Nancy Pelosi and President Joe Biden.
Mace also had a heavy hitter by his side: Nikki Haley.
The Haley Effect
The former governor, who is also a resident of Kiawah Island and a 1st District voter, endorsed Mace. Two days later, after Arrington got into the race, Trump lined up against Mace and behind Arrington.
While this dynamic has set up something of a proxy war between Haley and Trump, both of whom are said to have weighed in on the 2024 presidential candidacies, Haley is an influential figure in her own right.
According to a recent Winthrop poll, Haley remains hugely popular among the GOP base in South Carolina, where she enjoys an 82% approval rating among self-identified Republicans. That’s just behind US Senator Tim Scott, who held an 89% approval rating among Republicans in the same poll.
Haley’s backing didn’t just come with an endorsement, it came with a serious investment that topped Trump.
On the eve of Trump’s rally in South Carolina, which took place in the 7th Ward, not the 1st, Haley hosted a fundraiser for Mace in downtown Charleston.
She has also signed fundraising letters, signed emails and raised funds directly for the Mace campaign using her own digital infrastructure. She appeared in two different television commercials for Mace.
“She raised a ton of money for her. She was an enthusiastic surrogate and she also cut effective TV commercials,” Godfrey said. “These are invaluable assets in a tight competitive race, and they can all make a difference.”
Mace’s campaign manager describes Haley’s endorsement another way:
“It was like chess. She took the first step. It’s a gamble, it’s a risk, and you hope it pays off,” McCubbin said. “It was Haley’s bet, and it paid off big.”
Mace won convincingly by a margin of 53% to 45%. In round numbers, that’s a difference of about 6,000 votes.