Bring It On
Marijuana and Tiger King and Panda Bears, Oh My!
South Carolina’s First Congressional District just became ground zero in the battle between the Trumpists and the “Sometimes Trump” Republicans. The 2018 Republican nominee, Katie Arrington, has announced a challenge to fellow Republican U.S. Representative Nancy Mace to test how Trump is enough.
The Quick Primer
You need a program to figure out how we got here. In 2018, then-South Carolina Representative Katie Arrington challenged then-U.S. Representative Mark Sanford in the Republican primary. Arrington won the primary, making national news for beating Sanford for the first time in his career. Like many Republicans, Arrington wasn’t a Trump supporter when he ran in 2016, but she found him on the road to higher office.
Pundits, political observers, and even Sanford himself claimed he lost because he wasn’t “Trump enough.” Right after his loss, I wrote about the race, observing, “[b]ased solely on my history of working for him, this looked like a dive from the outset.”
Arrington lost the general election to now-former Congressman Joe Cunningham by 4,000 votes, blaming the loss on Sanford for not endorsing her. Then-President Trump appointed her to a cybersecurity position at the Pentagon. It gets complicated from there.
In 2020, Cunningham lost his reelection bid to first-term S.C. House member Nancy Mace by 6,000 votes. Cunningham is now running for the Democratic nomination for South Carolina governor and will either lose in the primary or the general, but will lose.
Meet Nancy Mace
Before politics, Nancy Mace dropped out of high school at age 17 and became a Waffle House waitress. She took night classes to complete her high school degree, becoming the first woman to ever graduate from The Citadel in 1999.
She challenged Senator Lindsey Graham in 2014, placing fifth of seven candidates with just six percent of the vote. In 2016, Nancy Mace served as the coalitions director and field director for then-candidate Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in South Carolina. She parlayed that experience into a successful South Carolina House bid in 2018 before challenging Cunningham in the 2020 election. After Mace won the Republican nomination in 2020, President Trump gave his “complete and total endorsement.
So What Happened?
January 6th happened. Just days after taking office, Nancy Mace voted to certify the election results of 2020, the only South Carolina House Republican to do so1. She later told CNN about the January 6th riots, “[Trump’s] entire legacy was wiped out yesterday,” adding that “[w]e've got to rebuild our nation and rebuild our party.” Her criticism generated political heat, and she turned her attention back to the Democrats. She voted to expel Liz Cheney as GOP Conference Chair and opposed the creation of a January 6th investigation. Then she voted to hold Steve Bannon in contempt in October. In November 2021, Trump sent out the MAGA signal saying, “Any interest from good and SMART America First Republican Patriots to run primary campaigns,” against several Republicans, including Mace. In December, she got into a war of tweets with Marjorie Taylor Greene as part of Kevin McCarthy’s running scared for Speaker program.
Then there was this:
And her bill to repatriate…American-born giant pandas.
Pretty heady stuff.
The week started good enough for Nancy Mace. On Monday, former South Carolina Governor and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley endorsed Mace’s bid for reelection, saying, “She’s a fighter who stands up to Biden’s reckless spending, punches back against lawless lockdowns and mandates, and is strong on border security.” Despite Trump’s open call for a primary opponent to run against Mace, this endorsement came. Haley is also expected to headline a fundraiser for Mace.
On Tuesday, Arrington launched her bid for Congress in a two-minute video outlining her support for Trump and calling Nancy Mace a “sell-out.” She also cites Mace’s legislation to decriminalize marijuana, asking the poignant question, “Is Nancy Mace high?”
In an interview with Caitlin Byrd of The State in Columbia, SC, Arrington expressed confidence that Trump won the 2020 election and that Mace and others who failed to send the contested ballots back to the states were the reason for the riots.
Mace offered two responses. First, she said, “Serving in Congress is the honor of my lifetime, and I at least partially have her 2018 loss in our District to thank for that.” As if that wasn’t subtle enough, she tweeted this:
Can You Make Sense of It?
This congressional race pits Trump against Haley, his former appointee, and a potential 2024 presidential candidate. It’s a reasonably safe bet Trump will endorse Arrington at some point in the primary. He supported her in 2018 and has his sites set on Mace. That dynamic will be as interesting to watch as the race itself.
Redistricting will also play a hand in deciding the outcome of the race. The First District had become more competitive in recent elections. Still, a new map adopted by the General Assembly moves parts of Charleston into the neighboring Sixth Congressional District, making it more Republican. There are legal challenges to South Carolina’s redistricting plan, but a recent Supreme Court decision lessens the likelihood of success.
Mace already has a significant cash advantage with $1.5 million cash on hand right now. A Nikki Haley fundraiser and national attention shifting to this race, Mace could raise much more before the June primary.
There are also two other Republican opponents in the race; both have aimed at Mace’s “Sometimes Trump” positions, potentially drawing votes from Arrington if they stay in the race. To avoid a runoff, Mace needs to get to 50 percent plus one, leaving little room for Arrington to give away votes to another candidate.
A Democratic candidate for this race, pediatrician Dr. Annie Andrews, seems likable enough but will have her work cut out for her in this likely Republican district. Andrews has about $500,000 cash on hand but faces a less competitive district and a potential red wave in November.
It’s way too early to tell how this one will shake out. The dual storylines of how much traction is there in 2020 election denial and the potential for Trump and Haley to square off by surrogates make for a race to watch in the months to come.
One thing is sure: we’ve only just begun with the storylines.
South Carolina Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, both Republicans, also voted to certify the election results.