South Carolina GOP Primary Is Test of Trump’s Influence

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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. This voting could also provide some insights for 2024’s primaries, which may prove to be more dynamic than most people think.

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.

A different race is being held in South Carolina. In that race, Nancy Mace faces another MAGA-style opponent. 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. While she tried to be fair with Trump, Mace moderated her critique. But the former president wasn’t having it. The former governor of South Carolina is a possible Trump opponent for the GOP nomination in 2024. Nikki Haley and Mace are both running for Mace’s district that stretches from Charleston, South Carolina, 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, a country club Republican of old school is running. This candidate talks about the money he brought back for federal projects. His district includes Myrtle Beach. Trump was elected by 19 points. 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 is, however, 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 is meanwhile praising the way she represented her district in her first 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. According to a poll, 77% of South Carolina’s self-identified Republicans believe the 2020 election was wrongly and incorrectly decided. Trump meanwhile received 89% approval from Republicans. Haley is currently at 82% approval (keeping in mind the implications of 2024), so he remains potentially competitive in an state which has historically proven to have a great deal of power in selecting nominees.

Rice could be up for some tricky nights, all of this to say. South Carolina law allows for a runoff if there is no winner. Fry and Rice have a window of two weeks to reset the field and reduce the field. It is not easy to get polling results in this state. However, one Republican-leaning survey placed Fry 17 points ahead of Mace, while still stopping at 42%. That suggests that Fry and Fry will be facing a second runoff, which could double as the actual general election, given how the district is viewed as overwhelmingly Republican. Mace scored 5 points higher in the primary polls by the same pollsters. This district has only had one Democrat serve the seat for a 2-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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