Mace braces for personal, potent primary amid GOP backlash

Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) is facing a challenging primary battle, potentially including her former chief of staff, reflecting just how polarizing a figure she has become in her home state of South Carolina. 

Mace fought off a tough primary challenger backed by former President Trump in 2022, proving herself to be a resilient candidate. 

But this year, the challenges are coming from different reasons — and some of them are personal and potent.

“I don’t know if South Carolinians, those of us who reside in the Lowcountry, know what she’s for, who she’s for, or who she’s against, depending on the day, and then I really don’t think that she does,” said Alex Stroman, a former executive director for the South Carolina GOP. 

“Nancy Mace I think is finding out that if you’re a weathervane, and … you’re not consistent from Monday to Tuesday to Wednesday, then voters are going to respond accordingly and maybe look for other options and look for consistency.”

Mace has sparked fury within the GOP ranks in recent months over her outspokenness and her willingness to buck the party establishment. That was on clear display last fall when she joined seven other Republicans to oust then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), prompting several weeks of turbulence as Republicans scrambled to find a replacement.

Now, allies of McCarthy are making moves to recruit a primary challenger, according to a recent Politico report.

“Kevin wants payback for being removed, and the fiction there is that he’s going to fare better in the Lowcountry of South Carolina than he fared on his home turf in Washington, D.C.,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who led the eight Republicans who booted McCarthy. 

Mace has sought to position herself as a maverick within her party since first being elected to Congress in 2020, quipping to The Hill last year that “I feel like I’m on an island.” She has been openly critical of her party’s stances on gun safety and abortion and has gotten into public spats with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a key Trump ally on the Hill.

Her criticism of Trump drew a primary challenge in 2022 from Katie Arrington, a former state lawmaker who had the former president’s support. But Mace defeated her and went on to win reelection.

This cycle, however, Mace is drawing primary threats from some of her erstwhile allies. Republican critics cite what they describe as her on-again, off-again record of supporting Trump and her propensity for the spotlight as reasons she should be replaced.

“Nobody begrudges a political candidate for airtime, but she seems to be primarily focused on her next Fox TV hit, whereas members of Congress have to do constituent service, they have to be in the district, they have to go to events,” said Republican strategist Chip Felkel, who’s not involved in the congressional race.

Others have pointed to Mace’s record on key policy issues.

“We need a consistent conservative who doesn’t flip-flop for fame,” said former state agency official Catherine Templeton, who announced a primary bid against Mace on Monday. Templeton was later endorsed by Arrington.

Mace, who has criticized Republicans on their handling of abortion, argued the party has “to be pro-woman and pro-life.”  

Yet she also voted for an amendment to the annual defense policy legislation last summer that would have barred service members who left their state to seek an abortion from being reimbursed by the Pentagon. Mace defended her stance at the time, explaining the Senate wasn’t going to keep it in the final legislation anyway.  

Meanwhile, Mace’s ties with the former president have also raised eyebrows. The South Carolina Republican worked on his 2016 campaign, but she criticized him in the days after the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot and voted to hold former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon in contempt for a House subpoena. She has since endorsed Trump for president ahead of November.

Some bad headlines have also added to the scrutiny over Mace.

The Daily Beast reported earlier this week that her entire staff in her D.C. office had turned over since November. Gabrielle Lipsky, a spokesperson for Mace, mocked the article on X, formerly known as Twitter, writing “BREAKING: Entitled Former Staffers, with Inflated Self-Regard, Embark on Revenge Tour Against Member Who No Longer Needs Them[.] Give me a break. lmao.” 

And Mace has brushed off Templeton as “nothing more than a puppet in Kevin McCarthy’s bitter revenge operation” in a post on X.

A source close to Templeton’s campaign disputed the idea that McCarthy prompted the former state agency official’s run. The source said although Templeton took a meeting with someone from McCarthy’s orbit late last year, she had been recruited to run in the district for several cycles previously and wanted to wait until her children were older.  

Meanwhile, Mace’s former chief of staff Daniel Hanlon, whom she fired last year, separately filed paperwork last month to run in the primary. 

“This is about the establishment and the powerful vs. someone who’s going to be an independent voice,” said a source on the Mace campaign, predicting Templeton’s run is “going to be a retread of 2018 in the governor’s race.” 

The source also pushed back on the idea that Mace has flip-flopped on issues, pointing to her votes on holding Bannon in contempt as well as her vote that moved to hold Hunter Biden in contempt as proof of her “consistent” track record. The source also argued Mace declined more media hits than she actually participated in. 

The source also defended Mace’s endorsement of Trump this cycle, saying “this is really about the future of our country” and that their past disagreements were “water under the bridge.” 

Some Republicans believe primary challenges are not necessarily a bad thing in Congress. 

“Competition’s good at every level,” said Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.). “That’s what makes our process what it is.”

Longtime GOP strategist Dave Wilson argued Mace “has always drawn challengers because she’s a challenging force.”

But he suggested she’d need to explain her recent track record to voters. 

“The question that voters in the 1st Congressional District are more likely to ask is, ‘Are you doing things to be an obstructionist for the sake of being an obstructionist? Or do you have a real reason for what you did?’” he said. 

Still, her vote to oust McCarthy won’t hamper her from being supported by the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). A spokesperson for NRCC told The Hill it’s an incumbent-driven group and backs all of its current GOP members. 

It also remains to be seen how much McCarthy’s reported influence in the primary will have an impact, though some Republicans are skeptical it will hurt her.

“I think people don’t respect when somebody’s coming from out of the district telling people in their own district, how they should be thinking. And I think that kind of — at least in East Tennessee — it kind of falls on deaf ears,” said Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.), one of the eight Republicans who voted to oust McCarthy. 

Copyright 2024 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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