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South Carolina Rep. Tom Rice, once a Trump ally, now faces the toughest primary race of his life

The State (Columbia, SC) logo The State (Columbia, SC) 6/18/2021 J. Dale Shoemaker and Maayan Schechter, The State
Tom Rice wearing a suit and tie: US-NEWS-SCCONGRESS-RICE-MCT. © U.S. Congress/MCT/TNS US-NEWS-SCCONGRESS-RICE-MCT.

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Six months into President Joe Biden’s presidency, a voter in Horry County wanted to know who won the November 2020 election, and he wanted the answer to come directly from his representative, Republican U.S. House Rep. Tom Rice.

“Joe Biden,” said Rice, who represents the state’s 7th Congressional District.

There is a caveat, however, Rice offered at that same town hall event in Conway.

The 2020 election between Biden and former President Donald Trump had its “problems,” Rice said.

For instance, Rice said the U.S. Supreme Court should have weighed in on whether it was constitutional that mail-in ballots be counted after Election Day. And some Republican Pennsylvania lawmakers, some of whom have recently floated an audit of their 2020 ballots, similar to Arizona’s undertaking now, asked Congress not to certify their Electoral College votes back in January — a request Rice and others agreed to.

But ultimately, Rice said, “the election is over and Joe Biden won, period. That’s it.”

A seemingly benign question months into Biden’s first term has become a test of Rice’s political vitality among 7th District voters.

It comes after Rice stunned most South Carolina Republicans in January, joining House Democrats and a handful of Republicans to vote to impeach Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 riot when thousands of the former president’s supporters stormed the Capitol, sending members of Congress and staff into hiding.

In May, Rice joined a handful of House Republicans who voted to create a Jan. 6 commission to review the riot.

In a statement on Jan. 6, Rice said he had backed Trump tirelessly for years.

“I campaigned for him and voted for him twice. But, this utter failure is inexcusable,” Rice said.

The vote could mark Rice’s election peril next year. At least seven Republican challengers — including Ken Richardson, the head of Horry County’s school board — say they will or are exploring a primary against Rice, with a likely eighth on the way, to confront that vitality next June. GOP state Rep. William Bailey, who launched an exploratory bid in January, announced this week he would instead focus on his State House re-election bid next year.

They’ll all have to compete with Rice’s fundraising abilities. He ended the most recent federal quarter with more than $1.3 million on hand.

And, next summer, Rice’s race will become yet another test case for Republicans in the post-Trump era: Will voters keep a loyal Republican incumbent despite his public frustration with the former president, or will they oust him with a challenger who shows a stronger alliance to Trump?

Unlike other Republicans who voted to impeach, Rice’s district went for Trump big in 2020 — nearly 60%.

And Rice was about as popular as Trump, winning his seat with nearly 62% of the vote.

As Rice seeks a sixth term in office, the congressman has found himself wrestling with that very question.

At district stops to meet voters, Rice publicly embraces Trump’s past policies, letting voters know he voted with Trump 94% of the time. But he also defends his vote to impeach and acknowledges Biden won the election. Yet, Rice also casts doubts about how the election was won. If re-elected, Rice tells voters he will carry on the Trump administration’s legacy, but he calls some of the figures emerging in the post-Trump orbit — for example, Lin Wood, who lost his recent bid to oust South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick — “crazy as a loon.”

Straddling those two lines might be tricky for Rice, who is a year out from what may be his toughest primary challenge since he first ran after the district was created in 2012 when former Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer forced Rice into a runoff.

To win, he will have to keep the voters who are fully supportive of his approach to post-Trump politics but also have to attempt to win over voters who consider his impeachment vote one of betrayal.

Rice told The Sun News he’s holding out hope he’ll be able to carve a new lane until voters head to the polls.

“His (Trump’s) policies were my policies. They were my policies before he even got there, and they’ll be the policies of the Republican Party long after he’s a distant memory,” Rice said.

He points to his work on the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act to aid small businesses, his work to bring new jobs and economic development funding to his district, and his work on legislation that could make it easier for small police departments to win federal grants.

Rice also says he’s a “hawk” on immigration and is aligned with Trump on other issues, too. His few less-conservative votes, Rice explained, were those to bring disaster relief aid to South Carolina and other states in response to major storms. He said he believed that even though those were major spending bills, he needed to vote for them to help his constituents.

“I think when (voters) evaluate what I have done, I think they’ll recognize that I’ve delivered on what I said,” he said.

Walter Whetsell, a veteran Republican consultant who has run all of Rice’s campaigns since 2012, said it “remains to be seen” if next year’s primary will shape up to be the toughest yet of the congressman’s career. Still, Rice and his campaign are gearing up for a fight next year, Whetsell said, even if the biggest difference this time around is Rice’s January vote.

“Certainly we’re preparing for a very aggressive (campaign), … but I don’t think the story script has been fully written yet,” he said. “The vitriol that seems to exist on Facebook was not apparent at his town hall meetings, at his public events, in the phone calls he’s receiving.”

As Rice toes the line between supporting Trump’s policies but not the man himself, he’s shown a willingness to engage with some of the elements of the culture wars the past president frequently waged and used to rally his supporters.

In Conway last week, a former police officer who moved to Horry County from New York asked Rice how he could combat Antifa, or anti-fascist activists who participated in racial justice protests last summer. Rice said he’s sought to “support law enforcement” and called efforts to defund police departments — another slogan Republicans latched onto ahead of the November 2020 election — “the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard.”

Rice then led the audience in a round of applause for law enforcement.

At other town halls last week, Rice also criticized Democrats’ plans to use the American Rescue Plan to help give loans to specifically Black or “socially disadvantaged farmers” as the “most racist thing I’ve ever heard of.” He also has been mindful to lob criticisms toward labor unions — South Carolina is a so-called right-to-work state — and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., when talking about national politics or how Congress works.

But the GOP incumbent has also tried to keep it local, for instance, noting his support to build Interstate 73 and criticizing the Coastal Conservation League’s efforts to stall the project. Yet even then, local issues seem to no longer be truly local.

At a town hall event in Loris last week, Rice was asked whether he owns land along the eventual pathway of Interstate 73.

“No, no,” Rice said. “That’s a perfect example of the BS garbage that people put on the internet.”

It was another one of those key moments for Rice that revealed yet another fault line in 7th District politics that has blended the line between local and national politics.

“The 7th District, in my opinion, has been neglected. I think when you talk about our current congressman, he’s a one-dimensional guy who can only focus on I-73. And although that’s a great project for the Grand Strand, if he can’t multitask and try to do other things, (he’s) ineffective,” state Rep. Bailey told The State. “(Then), once he did what he did with President Trump, it showed he was out of touch with his district.”

Although Rice has been a staunch supporter of building I-73 for years, the question came from Jeremy Halpin, a former Horry County Council candidate who successfully unseated the vice chair of the Horry County Republican Party in April by running on an unapologetic pro-Trump platform.

Halpin, along with Roger Slagle and Tracy “Beanz” Diaz, swept out slightly more moderate pro-Trump candidates for the top three spots in the local party, running together on a slate that pledged an end to party corruption and a return to the U.S. Constitution. All three have flirted with conspiracy theories and courted the attention of party outsiders, such as Wood, a pro-Trump attorney.

It was Slagle who questioned whether Chinese investors in Myrtle Beach had undue influence on local political matters. No evidence has emerged that that’s true.

And it was Halpin who questioned whether Rice’s support of I-73 was pure. Diaz has former ties to the QAnon conspiracy theory.

It was that slate of candidates that pledged to run so-called RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) out of the local party — Rice included.

Rice, for his part, has shown no hesitation in talking about the new political dynamic in his traditionally red district.

At his Loris and Conway stops last week, Rice pivoted from slideshow presentations listing his accomplishments and positive economic statistics to a video recording of Wood speaking in Myrtle Beach. In the video, Wood can be heard saying that Trump is still president and that his supporters just need to bide their time until he becomes president again.

“He’s one of the guys that stood up on the stage in Georgia with (pro-Trump attorney) Sydney Powell … and said, ‘This election’s not fair, y’all shouldn’t vote in the runoff because your vote won’t count anyway,’ ” Rice said in Loris. “So, 600,000 Republicans who voted in the general election didn’t show up to vote in the runoff and we lost both Senate seats in Georgia, largely because of this idiot, OK?”

Asked why he chose to play the video of Wood, Rice said that doing so allows him to draw a contrast between his “effectiveness” and the “bluster” of the party’s more fringe elements.

In Loris, a part of Horry County more evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, Loris Mayor Todd Harrelson said he was still supportive of Rice, even though his vote to impeach Trump angered people.

Rice has done well working to bring money and jobs to the non-coastal parts of his district, and Harrelson said he deserves another chance in office to keep up those efforts.

“I don’t know that somebody new is the answer, that’s really hard. I think his vote in January is what opened the door for these people and they’re trying to ride the wave,” Harrelson said. “But so far, ... I think he’s done a fantastic job whether or not I agree with every single thing he’s done. But he wouldn’t agree with everything I’ve done either.”

Not every GOP voter in Rice’s district is buying his balancing act.

“I don’t think he’s got a snowball’s chance” at re-election, said Jeanne Bassett-Lumpkin, chairwoman of the Marion County Republican Party, adding Republicans who she talks to view Rice’s vote to impeach as the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”

It was the more rural counties in Rice’s district, like Marion and Chesterfield, that moved most aggressively to have the South Carolina Republican Party censure him after his impeachment vote in January.

Bassett-Lumpkin continued, “He’s too much of a politician at this point and he crossed a line. He can’t repair it, and trying now by saying you like the policies but not the person. It’s too little too late.”

Simply embracing Trump’s policies but not him, she said, is not enough to make him worthy of re-election.

“It only makes sense to value those policies, big deal, so how will he differentiate himself?” she said. “His vote to impeach Trump will be what differentiates him.”

But Jerry Rovner, who heads the Republican Party for 7th District, had a different assessment. While he thinks Wood and others in Trump’s orbit aren’t legitimate Republicans, voters in Rice’s district want representatives in Trump’s mold, and Rice might not pass that test, Rovner said. Where Rice, a tax attorney by trade, holds conservative values and is effective at conservative policy-making, he’s less of a fighter, which is what voters want, he added.

“We want a pit bull, someone who’s going to fight for what we believe in,” Rovner said. “Tom has a great voting record, ... but you have to be consistent. We’re past the point of milquetoast.”

Whetsell, from Rice’s campaign, argued that Rice’s voting record should be enough to earn him another term.

“I think at end of the day, the question is going to be: Is a 94% guy who supports Donald Trump, is that guy a traitor or is that guy an ally? That’s the question (Republicans in the) 7th District are going to answer,” he said. “Irrespective of a Donald Trump visit, Donald Trump is not going to be able to land a Trump plane at Myrtle Beach and rant and rave about Tom Rice about not supporting him. He supported him 94% time.”

Loring Ross, a member of the Chicora Rotary Club of Myrtle Beach, which hosted a luncheon Rice spoke at last week, lauded Trump but said it’s time the party shifts.

“They can pull a lot of the good things that Trump did and feed on that, but I don’t think we need to go and follow Trump 100%,” he said.

Mark Sanford, the former South Carolina governor who lost his congressional seat in the 2018 midterms and unsuccessfully tried to primary Trump, told The State he has spoken to Rice, but declined to elaborate on their personal conversations.

Sanford, who wrote a book about moving the GOP beyond Trump, said Rice is strong enough to fend off a primary challenger.

“The waters have changed. Trump doesn’t go onto Twitter as he once did. His influence ... has not subsided but it is subsiding,” Sanford said.

“It was deadly early on,” Sanford added of crossing Trump. “I don’t think it’s as deadly now.”

For his part, Rice is hoping he gets another chance to deliver on his conservative values for at least another term.

“There’s a couple more things I really want to do that will really affect people’s lives in this area,” Rice told The Sun News. “There’s just a couple more things I’ve got to finish. I’m sure they’ll get to a point where they’re ready to move on, but I hope it’s not quite yet.”

(The State’s Caitlin Byrd contributed to this report.)


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