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PAWLEYS ISLAND, S.C. – Republican Rep. Tom Rice says his vote to impeach then-President Donald Trump “was the conservative vote.”
“I told you I was going to protect the Constitution. I meant what I said, and I upheld my oath, even when it’s hard,” the five-term representative in South Carolina’s 7th Congressional District said to polite applause from supporters gathered at Hog Heaven Barbeque on Pawleys Island on the eve of the state’s primary.
Rice was one of just ten House Republicans to vote to impeach Trump on charges that he fueled the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol perpetrated by right-wing extremists and other Trump supporters aiming to disrupt congressional certification of now-President Biden’s Election College victory in the 2020 election.
Fast-forward a year and a half and Rice is facing a half-a-dozen primary challengers, including one from state lawmaker Russell Fry, who enjoys Trump’s backing.
“Republicans are supposed to protect the Constitution. We take an oath to protect the Constitution, not a man,” Rice emphasized in an interview with Fox News Digital. “And so what I did was take a conservative vote. If you want a conservative, I’m the guy.”
Fry, speaking with Fox News at his Myrtle Beach campaign headquarters, said he wouldn’t be challenging Rice if the congressman hadn’t voted for impeachment.
“I think the impeachment is the big elephant in the room and the voters are incredibly frustrated by that,” he said.
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Six of the 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach Trump are running for reelection, and Rice is the first to face a challenger endorsed by the former president. Trump, nearly a year and a half removed from the White House, continues to hold immense sway over the GOP. And while his endorsed candidates have had great success in Republican primaries this year for open seats, he’s yet to knock off an incumbent. All of which adds to the stakes in Tuesday’s primary.
The district, which covers the northeast corner of South Carolina and includes the Myrtle Beach metropolitan area, known as the Grand Strand, and the interior Pee Dee region, is Trump country. He won the district by 19 points in his 2016 presidential election victory and by 18 points in 2020 defeat. Rice has carried the district by double digits in each of his five congressional victories, including by nearly 24 points just two years ago.
Rice noted that “I have a very conservative voting record. I’ve voted with Donald Trump 95% of the time, more than anyone else in the South Carolina delegation until the impeachment vote.”
“I think I’m much more aligned with the Republicans in this district in terms of what their views are,” he highlighted. “The question for them is the impeachment vote.”
He argued that the Trump “aura is wearing a little thin” and that the former president should “absolutely not” be the leader of the GOP going forward.
Rice is a throwback to the kind of Republicans who dominated the party before the rise of Trump.
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The congressman, who’s backed by such organizations as the Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, and the NRA, told his supporters gathered at Hog Heaven that when he first ran for Congress back in 2012, “I told you I was going to work in three things – jobs, jobs, jobs.”
He then spotlighted that “unemployment in my tenure in this district is down 75%. Poverty is down 30%.” He emphasized, “I really need your help pushing me across the line.”
He highlighted his work on the fiscally powerful House Ways and Means Committee, as well as his part in hammering out the 2017 tax overhaul and the revision of the North America Free Trade Agreement.
Rep. Tom Rice of South Carolina speaks with supporters at Hog Heaven in Pawleys Island, S.C. on June 13, 2022
“I’ve delivered for you. I’ve delivered lower taxes for hard-working families and small businesses. I’ve delivered jobs and higher wages and less poverty. I’ve delivered for tourism, farmers and flood victims. I’ve delivered hundreds of millions for schools, broadband, new roads and more,” Rice says in his TV ad in the final days of the primary campaign. “Let’s put progress over pettiness. Let’s put results over revenge.”
Showing his displeasure with the transformation of his party under Trump, Rice told Fox News that “we used to call ourselves… Chamber of Commerce Republicans. Now they’re scared to do it. That’s some kind of purity test. Guess what. I’m a Chamber of Commerce Republican because I want everybody to have an opportunity. “
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Fry says the former president “continues to show that he’s the leader of our party.”
And he said that Trump’s endorsement of his campaign was “huge. We were tracking well, trending well, for a long time. After that endorsement, it’s been lights out. The energy is real. It’s incredible.”
Trump held a South Carolina rally in late March for Fry and for former state lawmaker Katie Arrington – whom Trump is backing as she challenges GOP Rep. Nancy Mace in the First Congressional District primary. Last Tuesday the former president held a tele-rally for both candidates. Clips of Trump from the in-person rally declaring that “Russell is a conservative warrior who will give no quarter to the socialist left” top Fry’s campaign commercial.
Rice took aim at Fry, charging that “the only thing he can tout is that Donald Trump endorsed him. That’s the only thing that he’s got to run on. I think that Donald Trump’s crack investigative team didn’t do enough work on him before they endorsed him. If you look at his record, he says he’s a conservative warrior, but that’s a bunch of bunk like pretty much everything else he’s said.”
Fry fired back, arguing that “Rice for months has tried to discredit our record. What we have a record on is leading in South Carolina while he’s failed.” He also claimed that voters feel that Rice is “not attentive to the needs and the desires of the people.”
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With a crowded field of candidates, it’s likely no candidate will top 50% and that Rice and Fry will most likely face off again in a runoff election in two weeks.
Asked if he hopes Trump will return to South Carolina if there’s a runoff, Fry quickly answered, “we’ll take any help from the president that he’s willing to give.”
Paul Steinhauser is a politics reporter based in New Hampshire.