But Rice has a chance to retain her seat, or at least advance to a runoff against a Trump-backed challenger, according to South Carolina political observers and people who have followed the race closely.
As he scours country music festivals and barbecues in the final days of the heated Republican primary here, the 64-year-old lawyer and country club Republican is making a different bet: that being against Trump in the future is the way forward, even in a district Trump won by nearly 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 didn’t need to lead the Republican Party, ticking off a slew of others who could at the place.
“I absolutely believe we need to get back to our principles of defending the Constitution — not just loyalty to a very divisive man, because that’s a horribly destructive path for the Republican Party,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I want to fight as hard as I fight, to prove that we’re not just about loyalty to a potential bully.”
The 10 House Republicans who voted for impeachment — who stay in touch via group text, according to Rice — have faced wildly different outcomes since Trump’s anger made them pariahs in their own party. Some are not running for office after facing tough GOP primaries. Many others are fighting tough battles. Two of them, Reps. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.) and Liz Cheney (Wyo.), have become constant critics of Trump, while others, like Rep. Jamie Herrera Butler (Wash.) have tried to moderate their criticisms as they tried to stay in office against the main challengers.
The group had dinner twice with former American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks, Rice said, and “we comment on the news of the day, we encourage each other, we talk. … We all became friends. declined to go into specific conversations, but said the group talked about Trump’s attacks on them and how to overcome them.
House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump
Some declined interviews because they said they didn’t want to campaign against Trump, who has backed a challenger in each of their runs. An aide to one said, “There’s no upside to talking about Trump.”
Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) decided not to run for office last year, citing the “toxic dynamic” that exists within the GOP toward those who don’t toe the party line.
Gonzalez said he was “not really thinking” about the election when asked about the nine other pro-impeachment Republicans who face tough primaries. But he acknowledged that their vote bound the group.
“It was fun getting to know people I didn’t know otherwise,” he says. “Becoming close and bonded with each of them has been really rewarding and something that I frankly cherish.”
In a recent interview, Trump said he was especially proud of his efforts to beat all 10 members, and advisers said it was his highest priority in 2022. “The others lose, like Rice in South Carolina” , did he declare.
Taylor Budowich, a spokesperson for Trump, said in a statement that the former president “pays close attention to each race and endorses the candidates who will be champions in his America First program, especially in races where RINOs weak and dishonest abandoned their constituents and embraced the awakened crowd instead.
There has been no reliable public poll on the race, but Rice’s allies believe Trump-backed challenger Russell Fry is their strongest opponent and hope to keep him below 50% to force a runoff. . A Winthrop University poll earlier this year showed Trump had an 89% approval rating among state Republicans, higher than any other GOP politician.
One reason Trump’s endorsement hasn’t necessarily stopped Rice, some South Carolina political observers say, is that he only held one rally in the state, which attracted a few thousand people, and a tele-rally, but didn’t spend any money in the state.
Trump is also campaigning against Rep. Nancy Mace, another South Carolina Republican whom he backed against — even though she did not vote for impeachment. Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and former UN ambassador under Trump, campaigned for Mace, angering Trump.
“If the Trump Organization was willing to spend as much money as it is political capital, it might have won a lot more races,” said Tim Pearson, a longtime agent from South Carolina who was one of Haley’s top advisers.
In Rice’s deeply religious neighborhood, pro-Trump flags and signs dot the 501 freeway, and evangelical voters helped propel Trump to a landslide victory. It has seen a population boom in recent years, fueled by the promise of lower property taxes and proximity to the beach. Many retirees have come from the north, locals say, with subdivisions sprouting up all over rural towns like Aynor and Conway.
The local Republican Party has changed, according to Rice and South Carolina political consultants. Some local party leaders have accepted Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen, and the party deliberately excluded Rice from at least one major event. In Horry County, the local Republican Party website touts a recent speech by former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and an AR-15 that Flynn signed for a raffle.
“The local county party had meetings where some were telling people not to get vaccinated,” Rice said, adding that he opposed that advice.
Rice has always been popular — never having faced a Republican challenge, campaigning for Trump and touting his conservative record — until now. He has lived in South Carolina all his life and runs a law firm named after him.
He campaigned vigorously for Trump throughout the 2020 presidential election season and championed some of Trump’s most controversial decisions 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 now regrets.
In a recent interview, Rice said he has no regrets supporting Trump every time, called his presidency “consequential” and said the country would be better off if Trump won over Joe Biden.
“I thought he pressed the wrong button,” Rice’s campaign consultant Walter Whetsell said of his impeachment vote. Rice said many people called him to make sure he had voted correctly that day, but he voted and immediately left Washington, expecting some opprobrium.
Rice said the vote was obvious to him after studying what Trump did that day — attacking and not calling former Vice President Mike Pence, calling other officials, or doing nothing to show remorse.
“When you throw a tantrum after the election that culminates in a lie and the dismissal of the United States Capitol, and you sit there and watch the Capitol get trashed and the Capitol police get beat up for three hours, and you don’t lift a finger to stop it, it’s indefensible,” he said. “For sic this mob on Mike Pence and his wife and daughter is only a messy direct attack on our Constitution.”
Rice said the impeachment vote undoubtedly made his run much harder, but he wouldn’t change it. At first, Rice said he was frequently confronted in the district for his vote, but also received considerable support after explaining it at town halls. Comments on his social media pages suggest that, at least among Republican activists, he remains deeply unpopular. Hundreds of people still attack him every week for his vote, and local activists have rallied their support against him.
Since then, Rice said, more “random people” have sent him contributions, but official GOP support has all but dried up — and others have come to the district to campaign against him. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California), he said, hasn’t helped him even though he’s incumbent.
“They are very scared and respect the president. They feel like if they alienate it, their prospects are diminished,” he said.
Rice said he defended his impeachment decision many times to his constituents, but most now ask him about inflation, gas prices, President Biden or Afghanistan. While the impeachment vote has come up repeatedly, he says “now maybe I get asked about it once at every event.”
During a recent debate, Fry and the other challengers repeatedly eviscerated Rice for his impeachment vote, leaving him alone on stage to defend himself.
Rice said his main opponent, Fry, made his entire campaign on a “litmus test” on Trump and impeachment as he wanted to talk about projects he had 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 wickedness.”
“When was the last time you had a president, any president in your life, come to play in a primary election for revenge? I can’t name a single time in my life,” he continued. “It has absolutely been diminished. There is no doubt that he has. There is no way for him to be president again in terms of winning the election. He wants attention and he’s afraid of losing it.