CHARLESTON, SC — At a campaign event the weekend before South Carolina’s primary election, Tom Rice, a conservative congressman now on the wrong side of former President Donald J. Trump, offered a confession.
“I made my next election a little bit harder than the ones in the past,” he said on Friday, imploring his supporters — a group he called “reasonable, rational folks” and “good, solid mainstream Republicans” — to support him at the polls on Tuesday.
Two days before and some 100 miles south, Representative Nancy Mace, another Palmetto State Republican who drew the former president’s ire, recognized her position while knocking doors on a sweltering morning.
“I accept everything. I take responsibility. I don’t back down,” she said, confident that voters in her Lowcountry district would be sympathetic. “They know that ‘hey, even if I disagree with her, at least she’s going to tell me where she is,’” she added.
Ms. Mace and Mr. Rice are the former president’s two targets for revenge on Tuesday. After a pro-Trump mob stormed the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, they were among those who blamed the president for the attack. Ms. Mace, just days into her first term, said that Mr. Trump’s false rhetoric about the presidential election being “stolen” had stoked the riot and threatened his life. Mr. Rice, whose district borders Ms. Mace’s to the north, immediately condemned Mr. Trump and joined nine other Republicans (but not Ms. Mace) in later voting for his impeachment.
Now, in the face of primary challenges backed by the former president, the two have taken starkly different approaches to political survival. Ms. Mace has taken the teeth out of her criticisms of Mr. Trump, seeking instead to discuss her conservative voting record and libertarian streak in policy discussions. Mr. Rice, instead, has dug in, defending his impeachment vote and further excoriating Mr. Trump in the process.
Should they fend off their primary challengers on Tuesday, Ms. Mace and Mr. Rice will join a growing list of incumbents who have endured the wrath of the GOP’s Trump wing without ending their political careers. Yet their conflicting strategies—a reflection of both their political instincts and the differing politics of their districts—will offer a look at just how far a candidate can go in their defiance of Mr. Trump.
In the eyes of her supporters, Ms. Mace’s past comments are less concrete than a vote to impeach. She has aimed to improve her relationship with pro-Trump portions of the GOP, spending nearly every day of the past several weeks on the campaign trail to remind voters of her Republican bona fides, not her unfiltered criticism of Mr. Trump.
“Everyone knows I was unhappy that day,” she said of Jan. 6. “The entire world knows. All my constituents know.”
Her district, which stretches from the left-leaning corners of Charleston to Hilton Head’s conservative country clubs, has an electorate that includes far-right Republicans and liberal Democrats. Ms. Mace has marketed herself not only as a conservative candidate but also one who can defend the politically diverse district against a Democratic rival in November.
“It is and always will be a swing district,” she said. “I’m a conservative, but I also understand I don’t represent only conservatives.”
That is not a positive message for all in the Lowcountry, however.
Ted Huffman, owner of Bluffton BBQ, a restaurant nestled in the heart of Bluffton’s touristy town center, said he was supporting Katie Arrington, the Trump-backed former state representative taking on Ms. Mace. What counted against Ms. Mace was not her feud with Mr. Trump but her relative absence in the restaurant’s part of the district, Mr. Huffman said.
“Katie Arrington, she’s been here,” Mr. Huffman said, recalling the few times Ms. Arrington visited Bluffton BBQ. “I’ve never seen Nancy Mace.”
During a Summerville event with Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, Ms. Mace gave a stump speech that ran down a list of right-wing talking points: high inflation driven by President Biden’s economic agenda, an influx of immigrants at the Southern border , support for military veterans. She did not mention Mr. Trump.
Ms. Mace predicts a decisive primary win against Ms. Arrington, who has placed her Trump endorsement at the center of her campaign message. A victory in the face of that, Ms. Mace said, would prove “the weakness of any endorsement.”
“Typically I don’t put too much weight into endorsements because they don’t matter,” she said. “He’s really the candidate. It’s the person people are voting for — that’s what matters.”
Speaking from her front porch in Moncks Corner, SC, Deidre Stechmeyer, a 42-year-old stay-at-home mother, said she was not closely following Ms. Mace’s race. But when asked about the congresswoman’s comments condemning the Jan. 6 riot, she shifted.
“That’s something that I agree with her on,” she said, adding that she supported Ms. Mace’s decision to certify the Electoral College vote — a move that some in the GOP have pointed to as a definitive betrayal of Mr. Trump. “There was just so much conflict and uncertainty. I feel like it should’ve been certified.”
Mr. Rice’s impeachment vote, on the other hand, presents a more identifiable turnabout.
It’s part of the reason Ms. Mace has a comfortable lead in her race, according to recent pollswhile Mr. Rice faces far more primary challengers and is most likely headed to a runoff with a Trump-endorsed state representative, Russell Fry, after Tuesday.
Mr. Fry’s campaign has centered Mr. Rice’s impeachment vote in his message, turning the vote into a referendum on Mr. Rice’s five terms in Congress.
“It’s about more than Donald Trump. It’s about an incumbent congressman losing the trust of a very conservative district,” said Matt Moore, former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party and an adviser to Mr. Fry’s campaign.
Still, Mr. Rice is betting on his hyper-conservative economic record and once-unapologetic support of the former president to win him a sixth term in one of South Carolina’s most pro-Trump congressional districts.
In an interview, Mr. Rice noted the Republican Party’s shift toward pushing social issues over policy — something he said had been driven in part by the former president’s wing of the party, which helped redefine it.
He also laid out what the Republican Party should stand for: “less taxes, less government, more freedom, individual responsibility, the American Dream,” he said. “If we’re not for that, then, gosh, I don’t know what the Republican Party’s about.”
The impeachment vote has also won him favor with some voters. Rick Giles, a Rice supporter in Conway, SC, said he admired Mr. Rice for his vote.
“He stood up to Trump when a lot of people didn’t,” Mr. Giles said. “He stood on his values. He didn’t go with the party line. I like that.”
Mr. Rice’s district, in South Carolina’s northeast corner along the North Carolina border, is one of the state’s most conservative, favoring Republicans by nearly 30 points. And before the impeachment vote, Mr. Rice was one of Mr. Trump’s most staunch supporters, with a voting record that matched Mr. Trump’s stance more than 90 percent of the time.
“It’s not about my voting record. It’s not about my support of Trump. It’s not about my ideology. It’s not because this other guy’s any good,” Mr. Rice said. “There’s only one reason why he’s doing this. And it’s just for revenge.”
Mr. Trump has had less success in the states at the root of his primary challenger push. In Georgia, two of his most prominent perceived enemies, Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, handily won their primaries against challengers backed by the former president. The two House races where he did not endorse incumbents have gone to a runoff.
Mark Sanford, a former congressman who was bested by Ms. Arrington in 2018 after Mr. Trump backed her primary challenge, predicted that Ms. Mace would prevail.
“I think she’ll be fine,” he said, pointing to the state’s increasing number of transplants from northern states who tend to favor establishment candidates. “That bodes well for Nancy, it doesn’t bode well for Katie.”
Still, he said, Tuesday’s outcome is unlikely to change the former president’s approach to politics.
“It’s binary with Trump,” Mr. Sanford said. “You’re not halfway in, halfway out — you’re either in or out.”