South Carolina primaries signal mixed results for Republicans critical of Trump

One Trump critic won, another was defeated by double-digit margins.

June 17, 2022, 5:56 PM

Several Republicans who broke ranks and condemned former President Donald Trump in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol now face difficult reelection battles in the upcoming midterms, thanks in part to Trump himself supporting primary challengers.

But the former president's magic touch may be fading, partly due to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, said former South Carolina governor and congressman, Mark Sanford, who lost his primary in 2018 to Trump-backed Rep. Katie Arrington.

Sanford said he believes that "there is something of a rubicon that was crossed."

"There was a time when crossing the Trump line meant extinction. We're not there now," he said.

In South Carolina's GOP primaries, for example, one Trump critic was victorious, and another was defeated by double-digit margins. The success of Charleston-area Rep. Nancy Mace, who chided Trump after the insurrection, and the crushing loss of Rep. Tom Rice, one of the 10 Republicans who voted for impeachment, are district bellwethers for upcoming races where similar tensions loom large.

Both Mace and Rice handled their Trump criticism differently. Rice was crushed by Trump-backed challenger Russell Fry by over 20 points after months of doubling down on his pro-impeachment position, which he told ABC News was the "conservative vote" that he made with no regrets. Trump railed against Rice, calling him a "Republican In Name Only" and a traitor.

PHOTO: Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley speaks at a campaign rally for U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace ahead of South Carolina's GOP primary elections, on June 12, 2022, in Summerville, S.C.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley speaks at a campaign rally for U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace ahead of South Carolina's GOP primary elections, on June 12, 2022, in Summerville, S.C.
Meg Kinnard/AP

That sort of fervor clearly motivated the voters in the northern part of the state, who lean far more conservative than the cosmopolitan voters of Mace's district. And, unlike Mace, Rice struggled to get the endorsement of Republicans in Trump's orbit, which ABC News political contributor Sarah Isgur found "tough to overcome" in a post-Trump Republican party.

So far, half of the House Republicans who voted for Trump's impeachment will not return to their jobs come November. Thanks to his primary loss, Rice now joins four other members of Congress who have announced they won't run for reelection.

The next question is how Peter Meijer of Michigan, who also faces a Trump-backed primary challenger in John Gibbs, a former Trump administration official, can survive.

By taking a page out of Mace's playbook, Isgur says.

"He's been endorsed by pretty much every other Republican -- in the state and nationally," said Isgur. "And he has an even higher local name ID than Mace since his family's name is on every grocery store. I'd expect a similar outcome."

PHOTO: Rep. Peter Meijer speaks during the news conference on the Invest to Protect Act outside the Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on May 12, 2022.
Rep. Peter Meijer speaks during the news conference on the Invest to Protect Act outside the Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on May 12, 2022.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images, FILE

When asked how she staved off Trump's pillaries, Mace pointed toward the endorsement from former governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, and the endorsement of other high-profile Republicans like former White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. They bolstered her Republican Party bona fides while Haley's deep ties with the state as the former governor also helped. Mace also credited aggressive door-knocking and embracing a more bipartisan, suburban friendly tack of Republicanism for her win.

"Folks here want to know that they can trust the person that you're sending Washington on their word, and that's what really matters to voters," said Mace. "I love having Nikki Haley here, but it's also up to the candidate to work hard and win -- and that's what we're going to do tomorrow."

And win she did -- beating Arrington by almost eight points.

A GOP adviser involved in South Carolina politics who was granted anonymity to speak about the state of the party predicted the stakes will be even higher for Meijer in August.

PHOTO: Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina speaks to supporters at her election night event after defeating former state Rep. Katie Arrington in the 1st District primary on June 14, 2022, in Mount Pleasant, S.C.
Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina speaks to supporters at her election night event after defeating former state Rep. Katie Arrington in the 1st District primary on June 14, 2022, in Mount Pleasant, S.C.
Meg Kinnard/AP

"If they voted for impeachment, that will be harder," said the source. "Also, if they aren't conservatives who line up well with their party and district."

Perhaps the highest-profile stop on what some see as Trump's revenge tour is in Wyoming, where efforts to unseat Rep. Liz Cheney, one of the most vocal opponents of the MAGA agenda and a leader of the House committee investigating Jan. 6, are underway. Isgur says Cheney's race is a bit of an outlier given the "outsized attention," but one Republican lawmaker who lost his job in Washington for challenging Trump told ABC News that all hope is not lost for those who break rank.

"It's a mixed bag. On some of his endorsements he does OK, and some he doesn't. But he's down to mere moral status," Sanford said.

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