The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump shunned Nancy Mace. Can she survive a GOP primary anyway?

The South Carolina congresswoman is in the middle of a fight over the meaning of integrity in Republican politics

Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) at the Capitol in May. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Nancy Mace was telling her story again. The 15-minute version, sized for easy delivery at a campaign event.

“I just never thought I’d be where I am today,” the South Carolina congresswoman told an audience of potential voters at a meeting hall just outside Charleston. She told them she dropped out of high school after being traumatized by rape at age 16. She worked a few months at Waffle House, eventually finished her high school degree at a local technical college and went to The Citadel, her father’s alma mater, becoming the first woman to graduate. Two years ago, she flipped a House seat by beating a Democrat in the Lowcountry.

Mace, who is seeking reelection, left out the part of her story that had launched her as a new face on the cable news circuit: After she voted to certify President Biden’s 2020 election win, Donald Trump embarked on a public crusade to deep-six her fledgling political career.

“A lot of conservatives are upset,” said the host, Adam Curran, alluding to her vote.

“We have to follow the Constitution,” Mace replied, “even when we don’t like who’s in charge or who won the election.”

Mace made a point of describing herself as a devotee of Trump’s “America First” agenda.

In the crowd, John Ward folded his arms across his chest and scowled. “The audacity!” Ward, a cybersecurity specialist, said afterward. “What did she do to Trump the moment she got elected? Completely backstabbed him!”

If Mace wins Tuesday’s primary, “I will not vote for her again,” he said. “She has no integrity!”

There is a species of Republican whose transgressions against Trump have rendered them — is there any other way to say it? — persona non MAGA. The former president is backing Mace’s challenger, Katie Arrington, who wastes no opportunity to pay homage to Trump and who, along with her allies, seems determined to cast Mace as the second coming of George McGovern. (“A WOKE LIBERAL,” says the headline of an anti-Mace mailer, sent by a political action committee called Drain the DC Swamp.)

By all appearances, these barbs are not about conservative beliefs. Mace supports low taxes and building Trump’s border wall. Assessing her votes and legislation she has co-sponsored, the conservative advocacy group Heritage Action for America gives Mace a 93 out of 100. Rather, it seems to be about the meaning of integrity in today’s Republican Party, and the extent to which it is defined by one’s fealty to Trump.

If Republicans regain control of Congress after the November midterm elections, the White House will face an onslaught of GOP-led investigations. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

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The battleground is the 1st Congressional District, a swath of coastal South Carolina that includes Charleston, which Biden won, and deep-red counties to the north and south. Mace has raised $4.1 million, far more than Arrington. Yet local Republican leaders expect a closer finish than the candidates’ financial muscle might suggest.

“There’s a group of Republican voters, the hardcore conservatives and activists who will never forgive her,” Will Folks, a former adviser to Republican Mark Sanford and the editor of a statewide news website, says of Mace. “That chunk of the electorate makes Katie Arrington viable.”

The story Nancy Mace tells about herself is about overcoming challenges that might have overwhelmed someone less resilient. Her reelection campaign reflects a broader question in Republican politics: Once you cross Trump, does the rest of your story even matter anymore?

On a Monday night in late May, Karen Walto, a retiree, was still thinking about whom to support as she arrived at a Charleston high school to watch the Republican candidates debate. While she questioned “if Mace is here for the conservatives,” Walto said that the congresswoman “knows the job” and that Republicans would back her if she’s the nominee.

Trump’s opposition to Mace, Walto said, is not part of her calculation: “He was a great president, but he’s too divisive. Too many people hate him. I’m done with Trump.”

Edwin Taylor, who also attended the debate, has not moved on from Trump. Two years ago, when Mace first ran for Congress, Taylor, a real estate agent, gave her campaign $2,500 because he thought she was a “great conservative” and expected “we could depend on her to support Trump.”

After Mace criticized Trump, he got a refund.

“She should’ve kept her mouth shut,” he said in an interview. “Once you break that trust with me, it’s done. You don’t talk about your family like that.”

Here at the debate, Taylor witnessed something more like a family food fight. After the candidates took their places, the moderator asked the audience to refrain from outbursts or cheering. Their good behavior ended after the first question, when Lynz Piper-Loomis, another Republican in the race, endorsed Arrington and walked off the stage.

“Kat-ie! Kat-ie! Kat-ie!” Arrington’s supporters chanted, pumping their fists.

“How does it feel?” retiree Mark Eutsler shouted from his seat at Mace, who gazed ahead, her jaw taut.

For the next hour, Arrington portrayed Mace as a Trump sellout who has focused on supposedly trivial concerns such as saving pandas, legalizing pot and freeing Britney Spears. And, of course, this: “She turned her back on us, and then she turned her back on President Trump.”

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Mace countered that she seeks bipartisan compromises “to get things done.” On the panda thing, she invoked Trump, saying he was “one of the greatest presidents of all time in protecting animal rights.” Mace also reminded the audience that Arrington lost in a general election in 2018, wielding that bit of history as a barb: “I’m the only candidate up here who knows how to beat a Democrat.”

“Save the pandas!” someone called from the audience, mockingly.

Things did not get any more civil from there. As the two candidates delivered closing statements, their supporters shouted over them and at one another.

“I wasn’t the one who had my top-secret security clearance suspended,” Mace said at one point, her voice rising. (Arrington, a former Pentagon employee, reportedly had her clearance suspended pending an investigation into whether she disclosed classified information, which she has denied doing.)

“Everything she said is a lie,” Arrington responded.

You’re a liar!” someone yelled from the audience.

“I’m the Trump-endorsed ‘America First’ candidate,” Arrington continued.

“THAT’S ALL YOU ARE!” shouted Dan Henderson, 64, a developer who’s supporting Mace.

“You’re a jackass!” Michael Novielli, 57, who runs a hedge fund, yelled at Henderson.

“Kat-ie! Kat-ie! Kat-ie!” the crowd chanted as the debate ended.

As she departed, Stacie Arcomona, 51, a school administrator, said she “can live with Nancy” — though not happily, saying, “She just wants to be on CNN and increase her brand.”

And Arrington?

“She acts like a toddler. I hate my choices — I totally hate my choices!”

The next morning, Mace slid into a Waffle House booth and ordered two eggs over medium, hash browns and coffee. It was the same Waffle House from the story she tells about herself — Exhibit A for her modest upbringing, her determination and how she has benefited from “second chances.”

Mace’s admirers often describe her as “authentic,” which is shorthand for politicians who try not to look or act like politicians while doing things politicians do. Mace likes to sprinkle her patter with profanities and is known to bring her dog, a lap-size Havanese named Liberty, to the office and to meetings. As a state lawmaker, in 2019, she revealed her sexual assault to explain the exceptions to her antiabortion stance — that it should be allowed when the pregnancy results from rape or incest or when it endangers the mother’s life. She talks freely about how she thought about suicide after being raped, her two divorces and her life as a single mother.

She had worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign, and it was his style on the stump that taught her “you can run and be who you are,” she says. “You can be a badass, and you can win.”

Her decision to certify Biden’s election and criticize Trump over the Jan. 6 Capitol attack catapulted her to a rare level of fame for a congressional newbie. “I want to be a new voice for the Republican Party,” she said on “Meet the Press” soon after arriving in Washington. “And that’s one of the reasons I’ve spoken out so strongly against the president, against these QAnon conspiracy theorists that led us in a constitutional crisis. It’s just wrong, and we’ve got to put a stop to it.”

Mace did not vote to impeach Trump or to create an independent commission to investigate the attack. But she did join Democrats and eight fellow Republicans on a vote to hold Stephen K. Bannon in criminal contempt for refusing to comply with a subpoena compelling him to testify before the House select committee. After Trump endorsed Arrington, Mace posted a widely mocked video of herself outside Trump Tower, describing herself as “one of his earliest supporters.”

Trump’s ire has persisted. He has called her “crazy!” “terrible!” and “bad for the Republican Party!” For her part, Mace says she holds no grudges and has suggested she would support Trump for president in 2024 if he is the party’s nominee.

“With Nancy, it’s always a little muddy,” Chip Felkel, a veteran Republican consultant in South Carolina, says of Mace’s zigzags. “She took a stand on January 6th, then she backtracked. It’s like a bad marriage with Trump — you get abused and berated, but you go back for more.”

That afternoon, Mace picked up her son, Miles, 15, and daughter, Ellie, 13, from school. On the drive home, Mace recalled how she tweeted a video of Miles scoring a winning shot for his basketball team. A stranger tweeted back: “That hit rim, why do you lie about everything.”

“Literally, you can see the ball going through the net,” she says. “Sometimes, I just have to laugh, right?”

Other times, not so much.

A month after her 2020 victory, someone keyed her car, she says, and in another incident, someone spray-painted “F--- You Nancy” and the antifa symbol, among other things, outside her house. Mace says she began buying guns for self-protection and now owns seven, including four pistols, one of which is “usually in my purse.” “I want them to know I’m a good shot,” Mace said of anyone who might consider messing with her. “I love to shoot. I love my firearms.” A few hours at the firing range, she said, “is cheaper than having a therapist.”

A bit later, as she drove across town, Mace learned that a gunman had killed 19 children at a school in Uvalde, Tex.

“I can’t even,” Mace said, phone pressed to her ear as she talked with an aide. She thought about the Charleston church shooting seven years ago, when a white supremacist killed nine Black congregants. She thought about the recent gunfire in North Charleston that caused youngsters to crawl off a ballfield.

“I have chills,” Mace said into the phone, tearful. “… I can’t even … I just can’t even … F---ing awful.”

The aide asked about releasing a statement. “No,” Mace said. “I don’t want to politicize it.”

“I don’t want to politicize it,” Mace said again the next morning, as she met up with a pair of aides at a cafe. “I want to be thoughtful.”

She had decided to release a statement on Uvalde after all, and had been typing a draft on her phone.

Her staff cleared her calendar for the next 90 minutes until she had to leave for a lunch meeting. At her office, Mace kept typing, now on her laptop.

“I just want to be thoughtful,” she said again.

What would a new voice for the Republican Party say now?

Infringing on gun rights is a nonstarter with her (she has an A rating from the National Rifle Association). But she insists there are things that can be done — things that “are not controversial” and “low-hanging fruit” that both parties can support.

Such as centralizing criminal data systems and creating an active-shooter alert … and implementing a threat matrix like the Secret Service uses to protect the president …

“Should I bullet [point] them, or is that too unfeeling?”

“You might want to streamline it,” an adviser said.

“I can’t,” Mace said.

She had her beginning: “When I dropped my kids off at school this morning,” she read aloud, “it was a stark reminder there are 19 families in Uvalde who didn’t get the same chance today. I cannot begin to imagine their pain.”

The ending was more difficult.

“In the days ahead, I hope we can see past our division...” she said, typing the words.

“And do something rather than say something …” she typed.

“And do something rather than solely say something …” she tried again.

“And do something rather than simply say something.”

Her scheduler appears at her door. Time for that lunch.

“ … that unites us rather than divides us …” she said, still typing.

“That’s good,” her adviser said.

“I’ll do some stuff on my phone in the car,” Mace said, walking out.

That afternoon, her office posts the statement, a thread of 17 tweets that includes eight proposals, each one bulleted.

“I pray we can see past our division,” she writes, “and do some thing rather than simply tweet some thing people want to hear but will never provide any real solution or be supported by the majority of Americans.”

The next day, her campaign posted an ad that calls Mace the “strong, tough and steady leader we need.”

As the word “strong” appears, so does a photograph of the congresswoman, in a gun shop, her left eye closed as she aims a pistol at an unseen target.