HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — Former President Donald Trump isn’t on the ballot this year, but he might as well be.
The vast majority of Republicans seem to be running to be as pro-Trump as they can, with just a few — like Rep. Liz Cheney in Wyoming — standing out for opposing the former president.
But Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) lands somewhere in between. Mace is a former Trump campaign staffer who is now critical of her onetime boss. Yet she still believes deeply in his agenda.
“I supported him in ’16, supported him in ’20 — and still support his policies,” Mace told HuffPost. “It’s OK to have a difference of opinion on January 6. It’s OK to have a difference of opinion on a number of issues.”
It’s a tough position when Trump and his supporters so often demand complete loyalty. And sure enough, Trump has already come out against her.
In February, he backed Mace’s challenger, Katie Arrington, in the June 7 GOP primary. He called Mace “very disloyal” to the Republican Party.
Mace’s race in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District is something of a test to see where the party goes post-Trump — and if there’s a path to run as a conservative loyal to Trump’s policies while keeping a distance from, or even outright criticizing, some of his actions.
“It’s a bellwether to see: What’s the future of Trump?” said Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at the College of Charleston. “It’s a good indicator to see how much sway he has now that he’s out of office for a couple years.”
The contest is occurring in the closest thing the Palmetto State has to a general-election swing seat, only adding to the stakes of the primary.
“This is the type of district that is going to decide whether we have Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi (D-Calif.) or Speaker [Kevin] McCarthy (R-Calif.),” Knotts said.
Rep. Nancy Mace's victory in 2020 restored GOP control of South Carolina's 1st Congressional District. She maintains that her challenger jeopardizes the party's power. (Photo: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)
The Trump Balancing Act
Shortly after Trump endorsed Arrington in February, Mace was in midtown Manhattan for TV interviews. Since she was in the neighborhood, Mace decided to tape a video response outside Trump Tower.
In the video, which went viral, Mace reminded viewers of her continued appreciation of Trump’s presidency and appealed to Trump supporters to see her as the surest route to protecting his legacy.
“If you want a Republican majority to thwart the radical, far-left, D.C. Democrat agenda, then we’ve gotta keep this seat in Republican hands,” she declared. “If you want to lose this seat once again in a midterm election cycle to Democrats, then my opponent is more than qualified to do just that.”
The video exemplified Mace’s tightrope walk as she seeks to minimize the political damage of her response to the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.
Mace provoked the ire of Trump and his firmest supporters when she voted to certify the 2020 presidential election results and faulted Trump for fomenting the violence of the Jan. 6 rioters.
“His entire legacy was wiped out yesterday,” she told CNN the day after the riot.
Mace didn’t go all-in on the anti-Trump bandwagon after that, though.
Instead, she struck a careful balance. She voted against impeaching Trump for his conduct leading up to Jan. 6, saying she had “great questions about the constitutionality” of the rushed impeachment process.
Last May, she also voted against the creation of a congressional panel to investigate the events of Jan. 6 and publicized her vote to expel Cheney, an outspoken Trump critic, from the leadership of the House GOP Conference.
Then in October, Mace broke from the Trump World script once again. When former Trump aide Steve Bannon refused to comply with a congressional subpoena, Mace was one of nine Republicans to vote to hold him in contempt.
I do want them to understand my perspective, and it comes from a place of holding the highest regard for the Constitution.Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.)
Mace has paid a price for her independence. Last July, she obtained a concealed carry gun permit after receiving death threats and having her house graffitied. She says the threats have come from all ends of the political spectrum; the graffiti included anarchist symbols.
To Mace, though, her votes consistently reflect her dedication to the U.S. Constitution, a miniature copy of which she carries in her purse at all times.
“People don’t have to agree with my vote,” she told HuffPost. “But I do want them to understand my perspective, and it comes from a place of holding the highest regard for the Constitution.”
But in a Republican primary in South Carolina, it’s not clear there is room for someone who is even moderately critical of Trump.
Her visit to Trump Tower appears to have done little to assuage her critics on the right.
Mara, a local Republican activist and Arrington supporter who declined to provide her family name, called the video an “embarrassing” display of “groveling.”
Bob Boss, a former Massachusetts-based health care consultant who retired to Hilton Head Island with his wife Angela, became a Democrat when Trump won the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. He was more open to supporting Mace before the Trump Tower video, which he said had caused a stir among his normally apolitical golfing buddies. He called her district office to register his displeasure with the video.
“I thought that was no class whatsoever, and I told her it was awful,” Boss said.
Perhaps aware of the negative feedback, Mace sounded a different note after the Trump Tower appearance. “I’m gonna win without him,” she declared days later.
Katie Arrington, center, speaks at a Trump rally in South Carolina as former President Donald Trump looks on. She is running as a conservative who is more loyal to Trump than Mace. (Photo: Sean Rayford /Getty Images)
The True Believer
If Mace reserves the right to disagree with Trump while expressing continued support for his tax cuts, border enforcement and other policies, Arrington’s loyalty is, by contrast, unconditional.
Arrington, whom Trump appointed to a Pentagon post after her failed 2018 House bid, spoke before Trump at a mid-March rally in North Charleston.
“I’ve been waiting a couple weeks to see Big Daddy come home, and I cannot wait,” Arrington told the crowd.
At a meet-and-greet in Beaufort in late March, Arrington made sure voters knew she attended the “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.
Arrington does not believe that the rioters were Trump supporters, because, she said, they wore hoodies and medical masks that are not characteristic of Trump voters.
“I’ve done my research. There’s never been an assault at a Trump rally from a Trump supporter to another Trump supporter, nor a Trump supporter to a police officer – not one incident! But yet on Jan. 6, Trump people did that?!” said Arrington, expressing disbelief at evidence that rioters supported Trump.
“So I say, no! The ultra-right and the ultra-left – who are not the majority of Americans, who are not conservatives, who are not Democrats – were those people.”
And at a candidate debate on Friday, Arrington said Mace’s vote to certify the 2020 elections was the “number-one reason” Republicans should vote Mace out. Had the results been overturned, Russia would not have invaded Ukraine and the United States would not be dealing with inflation, Arrington claimed.
While Nancy Mace wants to get bogged down in personal attacks, the fact remains she stabbed President Trump in the back and sold out the Lowcountry to the D.C. Swamp.Chris D'Anna, Arrington campaign spokesperson
It’s unclear what kind of financial resources Trump is prepared to bring to bear on Arrington’s behalf, especially given Mace’s fundraising prowess — she raised over $1 million in the first quarter of the year — and ties to Trump administration officials. Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor turned Trump administration ambassador to the United Nations, and Mick Mulvaney, a former Trump chief of staff and South Carolina congressman, have both endorsed Mace. And Arrington must compete for the right-wing vote against Lynz Piper-Loomis, who is also challenging Mace.
But Arrington has found a receptive audience in parts of South Carolina’s 1st, where plenty of Republican primary voters are angry that Mace criticized Trump after Jan. 6.
“Nancy Mace stabbed President Trump in the back, and he took her to the dance,” said Mara, who backed Mace in 2020 and is campaigning for Arrington despite being drawn out of Mace’s district. “It’s just ungrateful.”
Angela Pike, a saleswoman from Mount Pleasant, is frustrated at what she sees as Mace’s refusal to take election fraud more seriously or explain her criticism of Trump when pressed.
She also dislikes Mace’s cheerleading for the COVID-19 vaccine and what she believes is Mace’s penchant for posing in suggestive outfits in official literature. “I don’t like the way she uses her sexuality,” said Pike, who is still deciding between Arrington and another right-wing challenger.
Pike and other Mace critics referenced a mail item about border security in which Mace is wearing a tank top.
The criticism — however prudish and gendered — reflects a broader suspicion in the more socially conservative corners of South Carolina’s 1st that Mace is too young, cool and culturally liberal.
To that end, Arrington has blasted Mace for sponsoring legislation that would let states develop their own marijuana policies without federal intervention.
“Is Nancy Mace high?” Arrington asks in her campaign announcement video. Arrington is getting help amplifying this critique from a Colorado-based anti-marijuana super PAC that is running ads attacking Mace.
Mace indeed has a libertarian streak, manifested in her support for criminal justice reform. As a state lawmaker, she shepherded a bill into law that ended the practice of shackling prisoners during pregnancy and childbirth. She sees it as a similarity with Trump, who signed a bipartisan sentencing reform bill into law.
And Mace insists that her marijuana legislation reflects her genuine commitment to states’ rights.
“It respects the rights of states, which is federalism — very much a Republican issue,” she said.
To wit, she voted against the Democratic bill decriminalizing marijuana that passed the House on Friday because she said it does not show similar deference to individual states that may not want to decriminalize marijuana.
Some of Mace’s heterodox stances stem from personal experience. When, as a state lawmaker in 2019, she came out in support of allowing abortions in cases of incest or rape, Mace revealed for the first time that she had been raped as a teenager. The traumatic event led to a difficult period in her life, prompting her to quit school and work at Waffle House before getting back on her feet. She went on to become the first female graduate of The Citadel, a prestigious military college in Charleston.
Mace teared up as she recalled using marijuana to ease the psychological pain she felt after being raped. Unlike the antidepressants she had been prescribed, marijuana helped her move forward with her life.
“I thought by my age of 44, I’d be dead or in jail,” Mace said. “I’m not — I’m in Congress, serving a region where I grew up.”
When HuffPost asked if Mace still used marijuana, she grinned but declined to answer. “I’m just going to smile,” she said with a chuckle.
Former Rep. Mark Sanford (R) stands next to a cutout of then-President Donald Trump during a short-lived presidential run in 2019. Sanford embodied the Lowcountry's complex politics. (Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
‘The Beat Of Our Own Drum’
One advantage Mace has over her Trump-backed challenger is that Arrington apparently shares Trump’s penchant for interpersonal drama. A nasty text exchange with Mulvaney, the former Trump chief of staff, made it into the local press in March. In response to Arrington calling him a “piece of shit” and questioning whether Mulvaney’s Catholicism had made him a poor choice for Trump administration envoy to Northern Ireland, Mulvaney wrote, “You need to realize that you might be unstable.”
Mace has also blasted Arrington for allegedly improperly disclosing classified information to a defense contractor during her stint at the Pentagon. The Department of Defense put Arrington on leave and suspended her security clearance, prompting her to sue the agency for denying her a chance to clear her name. She reached a settlement agreement with the Pentagon in late January.
“While Nancy Mace wants to get bogged down in personal attacks, the fact remains she stabbed President Trump in the back and sold out the Lowcountry to the D.C. Swamp,” Chris D’Anna, an Arrington campaign spokesperson, told HuffPost in a statement.
Perhaps more importantly, South Carolina’s 1st — where ritzy country clubs dot the marshy coast — has a history of electing Republicans who sound more like Mace than like Arrington.
“There’s an element of sophistication and education in this district that you may not see in some other southern districts,” Knotts said.
The last Republican to represent the district before Mace was Mark Sanford, a former governor.
Sanford’s fate offers a cautionary tale for Mace, but also for Republicans hoping for a Trumpier alternative.
Like Mace, Sanford was a staunch advocate of lower taxes and spending and a fierce opponent of oil drilling off South Carolina’s coast. He went further than Mace, though, in his criticism of Trump, telling one interviewer that Trump had “fanned the flames of intolerance.”
Nancy Mace is vulnerable on both fronts.Trav Robertson, chairman, South Carolina Democratic Party
Trump got his revenge when he endorsed Arrington, then a colleague of Mace’s in the state House, against Sanford in the 2018 primary.
With Trump’s help, Arrington unseated Sanford. (Sanford went on to mount a brief and quixotic primary run against Trump in 2019.)
But due in part to her refusal to unequivocally disavow offshore drilling — and in part to a car accident that sidelined her — Arrington lost to Joe Cunningham, a moderate Democrat, in the general election. It was the first time a Democrat had won the seat in about four decades.
Mace defeated Cunningham by a single percentage point two years later, thanks to a coalition of Trump voters and moderates that had eluded Arrington in 2018.
The lesson, Mace believes, is that nominating Arrington again risks ceding the seat to yet another Democrat. “If I lose the primary, Republicans will lose this seat in November for good,” she said.
D’Anna, the Arrington spokesperson, suggested that Mace is trying to draw attention away from what he sees as her lack of conservative bona fides. “Every primary voter in America knows that electability is codeword for moderate,” he said.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, House Republicans’ campaign arm, declined to comment on the race, citing its policy of staying out of competitive primaries.
Democrats, however, are gleeful about the intra-GOP drama. “Katie Arrington – there’s no question about it: A win for her benefits us,” said Trav Robertson, chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party.
Dr. Annie Andrews, a pediatrician and Democratic candidate hoping to turn the seat blue again, has shown signs of traction. She raised over $500,000 in her first two months on the campaign trail.
Robertson is also optimistic that Mace will emerge weaker from the primary against Arrington.
“Nancy Mace is vulnerable on both fronts,” said Robertson, referring to critics on both Mace’s left and right. “She’s tried to have her cake and eat it, too.”
Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), left, discusses infrastructure issues with Hilton Head Island Town Manager Marc Orlando, center, and Mayor John McCann. McCann said he plans to vote for her. (Photo: Daniel Marans/HuffPost)
Other observers maintain that the GOP-dominated state legislature’s gerrymandering of the district to make it more Republican assures the party control of the seat anyway. The district’s new boundaries exclude heavily Democratic downtown Charleston and include more conservative rural communities further inland.
The new, more conservative boundaries “make a significant difference” for Republicans in what was effectively a swing seat beforehand, said a South Carolina GOP operative who is not aligned with either candidate but requested anonymity for professional reasons.
In the meantime, Mace has been trying her best to tune out the national discourse about Trump and make the case that her pragmatism is a good fit for the district.
She takes pride in sponsoring legislation that passed the Democratic-controlled House, including a bill with Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) giving the federal government greater flexibility to assign workers to technology and cyber-security-related tasks. And in a nod to her district’s large population of military veterans, Mace touts her work passing an amendment to the defense spending bill that extends college tuition assistance benefits to Gold Star families.
Residents of the Lowcountry “march to the beat of our own drum,” she said. “We want someone who’s going to work hard and deliver, and I’m doing everything I said I was going to do.”
Even as she has elicited Trump’s ire, Mace’s approach has won her the support of some local elected officials, including Hilton Head Island Mayor John McCann, a self-described conservative, who said he plans to vote for her.
“Nancy has done an awful lot for the community,” he told HuffPost. “I would caution people to be wary of voting for anybody they don’t really know.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.