But on Jan. 13, Rice shocked Washington and voters here in a district that includes coastal communities that thrive on tourism and rural areas focused on farming: He voted to impeach Trump on charges he incited the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
“It was very clear to me, I took an oath to defend the Constitution. I didn’t take an oath to defend Donald Trump. What he did was a frontal assault on the Constitution,” he said over coffee at Sunshine Pancake House in Loris, S.C., on Wednesday.
Now that vote threatens to end his career as he faces several potential primary opponents who strongly support the former president. And that race will have a broader meaning for his party, serving as a test case for whether a solidly conservative lawmaker, long popular in his district and loyal to the party, can be cast out by GOP voters for the lone sin of crossing Trump.
“What do you call somebody who votes with Trump 99 percent of the time? A traitor,” Rice said with a chuckle, recalling a joke he had read several months ago.
Punchline or prophecy? His electoral fate will probably provide an answer.
Rice is considered the most surprising of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, given his conservative record and reputation as a low-profile, loyal member of the party who represents a district Trump overwhelmingly won twice.
Most of the other nine have a more moderate voting record, and many represent moderate districts that Trump lost or barely won. And unlike Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), a fellow conservative from a Trump-dominated district, and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), Rice isn’t trying to make the vote a defining national issue.
While House GOP leaders worked to oust Cheney from her post as conference chair earlier this year over her continued criticism of Trump, they are expected to show support for some of the other nine impeachment voters during their reelection contests, such as Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), because they represent competitive districts that Republicans probably will need to hold to win the House majority in the 2022 midterm elections.
That’s not an issue when it comes to Rice — putting him in a precarious situation.
A Republican strategist familiar with House races explained that while Rice may try to save his seat, his ruby-red district may not make it crucial to invest in his race, given that voters are expected to choose whoever ends up having an “R” next to their name on the ballot in November 2022. The strategist spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal party thinking about the electoral landscape.
Rice said members of leadership have never threatened or warned him about the consequences of his vote but noted that colleagues “are a little uncomfortable” with his decision.
The offices of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (La.) and Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), Cheney’s replacement as conference chair, did not respond to a request for comment on whether they back Rice’s reelection campaign.
While Trump advisers have said he is considering “revenge endorsements” against lawmakers who have crossed him, he has yet to back anyone in the race against Rice. His office declined to comment for this story.
Anger back home
Rice is trying to campaign on his record, but he isn’t running away from his impeachment vote or his vote to support the creation of a commission to investigate the attack on the Capitol that Trump warned Republicans to oppose.
When pressed by angry Republican constituents, Rice defends his decision and tells them he would vote that way again.
“If you want a congressman who’s going to choose a personality over the Constitution, I’m not your guy,” he said at an event in Loris after calling Trump a “bully” in response to a question asking him why he did not vote in line with what a majority of his constituents wanted.
During his monthly “Coffee with Your Congressman” events, Rice outlines why he voted to impeach. After escaping the House floor and passing by bloodied and injured Capitol Police officers, Rice sought refuge in the office of Rep. Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.), where he watched hours of television. What he didn’t see that day amid the violence was any sight of Trump directing his supporters to stop their assault on the Capitol.
After asking his staff to dig up as much material as possible on Trump’s whereabouts during the crucial hours of Jan. 6, Rice said he only grew angrier the more he kept reading about the president’s inaction. Trump eventually posted a video telling the rioters to go home while telling them, “We love you, you’re very special.”
What cemented his vote was Trump’s tweet saying that Vice President Mike Pence lacked “the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution” and instead oversaw the certification of Trump’s loss to Joe Biden.
“To me, that is completely despicable, and I will vote that way every single time. For him to be calling Mike Pence a coward and him sitting at the White House surrounded by Secret Service and tweeting while Mike Pence is in the middle of all that, and he’s a coward? Give me a break,” Rice told a constituent at his Loris event.
He added, “If the president, by force, can intimidate Congress into voting their way, then we might as well do away with Congress and hand it over to a king. What he did in my mind is what dictators do.”
But that argument could be a hard sell in a district that voted 59 percent for Trump and 41 percent for Biden in the 2020 election. Rice won his 2020 race with 62 percent of the vote.
Opponents are lining up for a primary fight. Ken Richardson, the current Horry County Board of Education chairman, says he probably would have challenged Rice regardless because of their differences on education and business growth but decided to jump in early in February after constituents asked him to following Rice’s vote against Trump.
“I’m sure that Tom felt like, what he did, people would get over it and that would be the end of it,” he said. “I mean, the people have not forgotten. The people were upset and they feel like he let the district down.”
There are other candidates mulling a run purely based on loyalty to Trump, including media personality Graham Allen, who recently moved to South Carolina and announced his intention to run against Rice.
“Unlike Tom Rice, the sacred oath to defend our Constitution and country from threats foreign and domestic means something to me,” Allen says on his website, which has pictures of him with Trump.
Even Rice supporters said the anger over his vote could be difficult to overcome.
Fifth-generation farmer Keith Allen, 66, said that the congressman has often checked in with him and other local businesspeople to understand how he can best help them from Washington throughout the years. But shortly after Rice voted to impeach Trump, Allen says he received calls from 10 to 15 Republican friends who swore they would not support Rice even though they benefited from his help.
“Politically, it was not the right thing to do. However, in his heart that’s what he wanted to do, and I commend him for doing what he thought was right,” he said. “I’m behind him 100 percent. But there are people that won’t forgive him for that in our community.”
Rice and his team are banking on winning over the constituents he has alienated by focusing on his record, which includes bringing in funds to help infrastructure projects throughout the district and disaster relief after Hurricane Florence hit coastal Georgetown and Horry County, causing catastrophic damage that totaled $24 billion in damage along the East Coast, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
He is also touting his role in crafting the 2017 tax cuts as a member of the Ways and Means Committee, arguing it helped drive down unemployment in the district.
“A lot of people call it the Trump tax cut,” Rice said. “But I liked his policies because they were my policies before he even came along. They’ll be my policies long after he’s gone.”
And he’s taking aim at the Biden agenda to make clear that his division with Trump in no way signals any agreement with the new administration.
Rice is also eager to show that he is not part of the “Never Trump” movement of Republicans who opposed the former president during his 2016 campaign and term in office. Rice said he has no interest being “used as a tool to tear down the Republican Party.”
The congressman often reminds constituents that he voted with the former president’s position on legislation 94 percent of the time, making him second in loyalty to the Trump agenda among Republicans in the South Carolina delegation behind Rep. Joe Wilson, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight.
But in a nod to a potentially more moderate approach this year, Rice rejoined the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus earlier this year after leaving it after his first term in office.
His biggest allies in the district are members of the business community.
Karen Riordan, president and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, said she has remained impressed by how plugged in Rice is to the needs of businesses and workers, especially amid the pandemic, which has disproportionately hit their district.
“I’m out there every day talking to these businesses, and they’re not really talking about Tom and this issue. When his name comes up, it comes up in the context of: ‘Have we talked to Tom about this? Will he be able to bring it up’ to the Problem Solvers Caucus?” she said. “We can’t say enough about what he has done and what he continues to do around infrastructure, which is such a huge issue for us.”
A surprise vote
Moments after voting to impeach on Jan. 13, Rice dashed off the floor to make a flight back home to Myrtle Beach. But before he could step away from the chamber, he received a call from staffers in the minority whip’s office who told him that he had “hit the wrong button.” He quickly told them that he had not.
“I didn’t get to the bottom of the steps before Scalise called me and he said, ‘Tom, you hit the wrong button’ and I said, ‘No, it was the right vote.’ Then he said, ‘You sure?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely,’ ” Rice recalled. “I think a lot of people were surprised.”
Rice’s vote was also surprising because after the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, he returned to the House chamber that night and cast votes challenging the election results from Pennsylvania and Arizona despite no evidence of the widespread voter fraud alleged by Trump, which the rioters had used as their rallying cry.
He was also one of 126 Republicans who backed a Texas lawsuit in December asking the Supreme Court to review and possibly invalidate election results in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan for changing election laws to make voting more accessible during the coronavirus pandemic.
In an interview, Rice attempted to square his actions supporting the baseless claims spread about the election with his decision to impeach Trump over what those falsehoods wrought.
In the weeks leading up to the Jan. 6 certification vote, Rice said he was “struggling a lot” over whether to vote against certifying the election because most state legislatures were not complaining about the legitimacy of their results.
The night before the certification vote, Rice “pretty much decided” he was not going to object until Republicans in the Pennsylvania state legislature wrote to Congress asking it not to certify because their Democratic-led Supreme Court — not the state legislature — changed election rules to allow ballots received three days after Election Day to be counted because of the pandemic.
Rice said he concluded that the question should be debated by the Supreme Court since the decision could establish precedent on how states should run future elections.
He said he believes Biden won the presidency and denounced accusations from Trump and his supporters that the election was stolen.
At his stops in Loris and Conway on Wednesday, Rice played a video of conservative attorney L. Lin Wood, a leading propagator of false claims about the election who unsuccessfully ran for head of the South Carolina Republican Party, telling supporters last month that the military could still call on Trump “for the code if they need a first strike” because he remains president.
“That stuff is insanity. That’s just crazy as hell,” he said in Conway, during an event where he did not receive questions about Trump or his votes. “Once the vote to certify is done, that is it. It’s over. The election is over. Joe Biden won, period. That’s it. There is no constitutional mechanism to say, ‘Oh, we’re going to reinstate a president.’ ”
Jeremy Halpin, a landscaping business owner who attended the Loris event, pressed Rice on why he did not represent the majority of his constituents when debating how to vote on impeachment. He left unconvinced by Rice’s answer and left open whether he would support Rice in the primary.
“I think that maybe he made a vote based on what he thinks might be the temperature of this area, but he’s wrong in the fact that most people did not want that. He wouldn’t be catching the flak that he is if that is what people wanted,” he said.
Rice said he’s at peace with his vote and argues that Trump should focus on the conservative policies he put in place, not the election.
“I mean he’s got an awful lot he can be proud of. But with his flailing at this point, he’s hurting the country and he’s destroying — if he hadn’t already destroyed — his legacy,” he said.
Rice said he’s proud of his own legacy, come what may when his Republican constituents decide whether to nominate him again next year.
“If I was going to put myself over doing what’s right, the easiest thing to do would’ve been to vote no. Had I voted no, nobody would have ever said one word, but it was the wrong way,” he said. “If it cost me the job, then it cost me the job. I hope it doesn’t.”