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Tom Rice tries to survive his Trump impeachment vote — and stay in the House

The South Carolina Republican faces a strong challenge from a Trump-backed opponent in Tuesday’s primary

Rep. Tom Rice (R-S.C.) talks with constituents during a community coffee event in Loris, S.C., in June 2021. (Madeline Gray for The Washington Post)
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Of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach President Donald Trump in January 2021, Rep. Tom Rice seemed to be in the deepest political peril.

The Myrtle Beach lawyer with a country club demeanor and a Southern drawl sailed into reelection four times with a conservative voting record, even winning by 24 points in 2020. But his impeachment vote was roundly jeered in his ruby-red district on the South Carolina coast. His Facebook was inundated with thousands of vitriolic messages and still is. Friendships frayed, he said. Multiple challengers jumped in the race against him, fueled by Trump’s call for his ouster. His doom was widely predicted.

But Rice has a fighting chance to keep his seat, or at least make it to a runoff against a Trump-backed challenger, according to South Carolina political observers and people who have watched the race closely.

As he traverses country music festivals and barbecues in the final days of the heated Republican primary here, Rice, 64, is making a different bet: that being against Trump in the future is the way to go, even in a district Trump won by almost 20 points in the 2020 election and in a state where his approval is still sky high among Republicans, according to public polls.

In a recent interview, he excoriated the former president and said he was a “diminished” figure who lost the election and did not need to lead the Republican Party, ticking off a series of others who could instead.

“I absolutely believe that we’ve got to get back to our principles of defending the Constitution — not just loyalty to one very divisive man, because that is a horribly destructive path for the Republican Party to head down,” he said. “It’s one of the reasons I want to fight as hard as I’m fighting, to prove that we’re not just about loyalty to a would-be tyrant.”

The 10 House Republicans who voted for impeachment — who keep in touch via group text, according to Rice — have faced wildly different outcomes since Trump’s wrath made them pariahs in their own party. Some are not running for reelection after facing difficult GOP primaries. Several others are fighting uphill battles. Two of them, Reps. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.) and Liz Cheney (Wyo.), have turned into constant Trump critics, while others, such as Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (Wash.), have tried to moderate their criticisms as they attempt to stay in office against primary challengers.

The group has dined with former American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks twice, Rice said, and “we comment on the news of the day, we encourage each other, we talk. … We’ve all become friends.” He declined to get into details about the conversations but said the group had talked about Trump’s attacks on them and how to overcome them.

The House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump

Some declined interviews because they said they didn’t want to make their campaigns about being against Trump, who has endorsed a challenger in each of their races. An aide to one, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering Trump, said, “There is no benefit whatsoever to talking about Trump.”

Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (Ohio) decided not to run for reelection last year, citing the “toxic dynamics” that exist within the GOP toward those who do not toe the party line.

Gonzalez said he was “not really thinking” about elections when asked about the nine other pro-impeachment Republicans who are facing tough primaries. But he did acknowledge that their vote has bonded the group.

“It’s been fun to get to know people that otherwise I didn’t know,” he said. “To become close and tightknit with all of them has been really rewarding and something that I frankly treasure.”

In a recent interview, Trump said he took particular pride in his efforts to beat the 10 members, and advisers said it was his highest priority in 2022. “You had people drop out of races that they had no intention of dropping out of, and the other ones are losing, like Rice in South Carolina,” he said.

Taylor Budowich, a Trump spokesman, said in a statement that the former president “pays careful attention to every race and endorses candidates who will be champions for his America First agenda, especially in races where weak, dishonest RINOs have abandoned their constituents and instead embraced the Woke Mob.”

There has been no reliable public polling of the race, but Rice allies believe the Trump-backed challenger, Russell Fry, is their strongest opponent and hope to keep him under 50 percent to force a runoff. A Winthrop University poll earlier this year showed Trump has an 89 percent approval rating among Republicans in the state.

One reason Trump’s endorsement has not necessarily halted Rice, according to some South Carolina political observers, is that he only held one rally in the state, which attracted a few thousand people, and one tele-rally but has not spent any money in the state.

Trump is also campaigning against Rep. Nancy Mace, another South Carolina Republican he has endorsed against — even though she did not vote for impeachment. Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador under Trump, has campaigned for Mace, angering Trump.

“If the Trump organization was willing to spend as much money as they are political capital, they may have won a lot more races,” said Tim Pearson, a longtime South Carolina operative who was a top Haley adviser.

In Rice’s deeply religious district, pro-Trump flags and signs dot Highway 501, and evangelical voters helped propel Trump to a wide victory. It has seen a population boom in recent years fueled by a promise of lower property taxes and proximity to the beach. Many of the retirees have come from the north, residents say, with subdivisions sprouting all over rural towns like Aynor and Conway.

The local Republican Party has changed, according to Rice and South Carolina political consultants. Some leaders in the local party have agreed with Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen, and the party has deliberately left Rice out of at least one prominent event. In Horry County, the local Republican Party’s website touts a recent speech from former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and an AR-15 that Flynn signed for a raffle.

“The local county party was having meetings where some were telling people not to get vaccinated,” Rice said, adding that he opposed that advice.

Rice had always been popular — never facing much of a Republican challenge, campaigning for Trump and touting his conservative record — until now. He has lived in South Carolina his whole life and runs a law firm that has his name attached.

He vigorously campaigned for Trump throughout the 2020 presidential election season and defended some of Trump’s most controversial moves in office. He rarely voted against the Republican Party and did not vote to certify the election, even after the Capitol was ransacked — a vote he says he regrets.

In a recent interview, Rice said he didn’t regret supporting Trump either time, called his presidency “consequential,” and said the country would be better off had Trump won over Joe Biden.

“I thought he hit the wrong button,” Walter Whetsell, Rice’s campaign consultant, said of his impeachment vote. Rice said many people called him to make sure he’d voted correctly that day on the floor, but he voted and immediately left Washington, expecting some opprobrium.

Rice said the vote was obvious to him after he studied what Trump did on Jan. 6, 2021 — attacking and not calling Vice President Mike Pence, not calling other officials and not doing anything to show remorse.

“When you throw a temper tantrum after the election that culminates with a lie and the sacking of the Capitol of the United States, and you sit there and watch the Capitol get ransacked and the Capitol Police get beaten for three hours, and you don’t lift a finger to stop it, it’s indefensible,” he said. “To sic that crowd on Mike Pence and his wife and his daughter is just an unhinged direct attack on our Constitution.”

Rice said that the impeachment vote made his race undoubtedly much harder, but that he would not change it. In the beginning, Rice said, he was frequently confronted in the district for his vote, but he also received considerable support after explaining it at town halls. The comments on his social media pages suggest that, at least among Republican activists, he remains deeply unpopular. Hundreds still attack him weekly for his vote, and local activists have rallied support against him.

Since then, Rice said, more “random people” send him contributions, but support from the official GOP has all but dried up — and others have come into the district to campaign against him. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), he said, has not helped him even though he is an incumbent.

“They are very afraid of and deferential to the president. They feel like if they alienate him, then their prospects are diminished,” he said.

Rice said that he has defended his impeachment decision repeatedly to his constituents, but that most now ask him about inflation, gas prices, President Biden or Afghanistan. While the impeachment vote once came up repeatedly, “now maybe I get asked about it once at every event,” he said.

In a recent debate, Fry and the other challengers repeatedly eviscerated Rice for his impeachment vote, leaving him alone on the stage to defend himself.

Rice said Fry, his main opponent, had made his entire campaign about a “litmus test” on Trump and impeachment, while he wanted to talk about projects he’d gotten funded in his district and other national issues.

“He doesn’t know who Russell Fry is,” Rice said of Trump. “It’s just desperate revenge and spite.”

“When’s the last time you had a president, any president in your lifetime, come and play in a primary election for revenge? I can’t name a single time in my life,” he continued. “He’s absolutely been diminished. There is no doubt he has. There is no path for him to be president again in terms of winning an election. He wants attention, and he’s afraid he’s going to lose it.”

correction

A previous version of this article misspelled the first and last names of Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.). The article has been corrected.

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