The Triumph of a Sometimes-Trump Republican

South Carolina Representative Nancy Mace’s careful tightrope walk helped her win her primary, but it wasn’t the whole story.

Nancy Mace at her election night event
Meg Kinnard / AP

The video was the very definition of cringe. One day after Donald Trump endorsed her Republican primary opponent, freshman Representative Nancy Mace filmed a two-minute clip of herself outside the shiny black facade of Trump Tower in Manhattan—approximately 800 miles from her South Carolina district—to remind her followers that she was still loyal to the former president. “America was stronger all around the world, and quite frankly freedom and democracy was stronger all around the world” when Trump was in office, she told them.

The move looked desperate because it was. Mace had been extremely critical of Trump after the Capitol attack on January 6, but blowback from the MAGA right, and her fellow Republican lawmakers, had reminded her to tread more carefully. This week, Mace’s caution paid off: She defeated Katie Arrington, her Trump-backed challenger, by eight points in yesterday’s South Carolina Republican primary. For some in her party, Mace’s victory is evidence that GOP lawmakers must be loyal to Trump, but maybe not unfailingly so. It “shows you don’t have to kiss the ring,” Chip Felkel, a state Republican strategist, told me. “She polished the ring—she didn’t kiss it.” That’s likely true. But other factors worked in Mace’s favor too.

Since her election in 2020, Mace has offered a study in Trump-era political shape-shifting. During her campaign, Mace, 44, did not shy away from her devotion to Trump. She had worked on his campaign in 2016, and she promised to be his ally in Congress. Which is why it was so surprising when she emerged as one of the most vocal GOP lawmakers condemning him for his misleading rhetoric ahead of the January 6 insurrection. Here was a Republican with a different kind of story: a divorced mother of two and the first female graduate of the Citadel, South Carolina’s revered military college, who seemed eager to lead the GOP in a new direction. She was on cable news almost constantly in the days after the Capitol siege. Trump’s “entire legacy was wiped out yesterday,” she told CNN. When the Fox News host Neil Cavuto asked her whether she still believed that Trump had a future in the GOP, Mace replied: “I do not.”

Just as quickly, though, Mace seemed to realize the folly of her commentary, at least by the standards of today’s Republican Party. When the House moved to impeach Trump for his role on January 6, she voted merely to censure him. Soon, she started sounding more like the other Trump-fearing Republicans in her party. I documented Mace’s evolution in a profile last summer—how she started appearing on Fox News weekly to riff on culture-war talking points; began picking Twitter fights with progressive lawmakers; and voted to oust fellow GOP Representative Liz Cheney for continuing to criticize Trump. “To observe Mace these past several months has been to watch in real time as a freshman Republican absorbs a few fundamental truths,” I wrote at the time. “The base loves Trump as much as ever, and his allies are working to unseat anyone who fails to show fealty. There is no post-Trump GOP, not yet.”

That Mace won reelection seems, at least in part, a testament to the course correction she made. (Her campaign did not respond to requests for comment.) Trump fans in her district might have been able to forgive Mace for her early infraction, even if Trump hasn’t. At a rally in March, the former president called her a “terrible person” and a “grandstanding loser.” Last night, he successfully took out his ire on another disloyal South Carolina Republican. Representative Tom Rice, who voted for impeachment after January 6, was walloped by the Trump-endorsed State Representative Russell Fry. Rice had taken a very different approach from Mace: Instead of backing down, he doubled down, calling January 6 Trump’s “inexcusable failure” and voicing his hope that Trump never runs again. For that, Rice paid the ultimate political price.

But Mace’s tightrope walk on Trump isn’t the only reason she was able to hang on to her seat. The first congressional district of South Carolina, which contains Charleston, is relatively moderate—more so than Rice’s district; Charleston County was one of the only two counties in the state that didn’t back Trump in the 2016 primary, and the Democrat Joe Cunningham won the district in 2018. Mace, as the incumbent, also had name-ID and institutional advantages. An even more significant factor, local strategists argue, is that Arrington, a former member of the South Carolina State House, was a weak candidate. Voters had already seen her lose a general election to Cunningham in 2018, and Mace’s campaign had twice as much cash on hand. Had Trump actually invested money in the race, Arrington potentially could have pulled it out, Tyler Jones, a Democratic strategist and an adviser for Cunningham, told me. “If he’d have spent $500,000 on a straight-to-camera ad and said, ‘Look, Katie’s a better candidate. Nancy Mace has let you down,’ that would have been really effective,” Jones said.

So far in the midterm primaries, the former president has failed to punish as many disloyal members of his party as he’d like. Last month, a string of seven Trump-endorsed candidates were defeated in their primaries, according to an Axios analysis, including one who ran against Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state who flouted Trump’s request to “find” more votes for him. Governor Brian Kemp, who had angered Trump too, beat his own Trump-backed rival in every single county in Georgia.

While other candidates under threat from Trump have been more consistent in their criticism than Mace, those who have won their primaries have had to strike a careful balance to avoid alienating Trump voters. Last night’s results in South Carolina could be instructive for other Republican incumbents in the months ahead: Emphasizing disdain for Trump won’t help them win their primaries. A careful—if cringey—middle ground might.