By all reasonable criteria, five-term incumbent Rep. Tom Rice (R-SC) merits easy reelection. Alas, former President Donald Trump has skewed political criteria into the realm of unreason.
Rice, South Carolina’s only member of the influential Ways and Means Committee, faces six challengers in the June 14 Republican congressional primary, including one, state legislator Russell Fry, who is endorsed by Trump. Rice supported Trump’s positions in Congress 94% of the time, including in asking for Pennsylvania’s presidential electors not to be certified; but after Trump’s behavior during the U.S. Capitol riots, Rice was one of 10 Republican House members who voted to impeach him.
Yet aside from that impeachment vote, which some of us thought was entirely justified, Rice joined the vast majority of his constituents in supporting most of Trump’s policies. More importantly, on the few issues on which he disagreed with Trump, Rice’s judgment was clearly better for his constituents and conservative governance than Trump’s was.
For example, Rice several times refused to vote for extravagant spending bills that Trump supported, including two separate two-year budget packages.
“I just made up my mind. I’m not voting for spending bills until we do something to rein in spending,” Rice told me when questioned about them. “When the budget sequester, [a device to force spending halts under certain circumstances], went away, I stopped voting for them. … I decided I am not usually going to vote for spending bills until we do something to bend the curve towards rationality. This was especially true for the spending packages that were put forth by the Democratic leadership and two White House administrations, which were more than I was willing to accept.”
Also, Rice now looks overwhelmingly right, and Trump wrong, when Rice voted to disapprove Trump’s move to lift economic sanctions on certain Russian companies. Likewise, Rice disagreed when Trump would not apply sanctions to other entities from the three awful nations of Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Despite Trump’s tough talk against foreign adversaries, Rice was tougher on them than Trump was.
On impeachment, which took courage considering how many Republican voters opposed it, Rice explains his vote calmly, without rancor, including in the heat of primary debates.
“Our fundamental duty is to uphold our oath to defend our Constitution,” Rice told me. “The president sicced a mob on Congress and sat in the White House watching on TV with glee as the mob beat up the Capitol Police officers for three hours. And then he tweeted that [Vice President] Mike Pence doesn’t have courage when the mob was marching through the Capitol saying, ‘Hang Mike Pence.’ If the executive is going to attack the legislative branch [and his own vice president in his Senate capacity], it is absolutely my duty under the Constitution to defend the separation of powers. It has to do with making sure the executive is held accountable.”
Trump, of course, was furious. Rice said that should be immaterial.
“My difference with Donald Trump doesn’t have much of anything to do with policy,” said Rice. “[Trump’s opposition to him] is just for revenge. That doesn’t serve our district, our state, or our country.”
The bigger point, though, is that one vote made on principle should not define a congressman’s entire service. Rice has a reputation and record as a serious, effective, thoughtful, solidly conservative representative who fights for South Carolina’s legitimate interests.
“When I first ran for Congress, the unemployment rate was 13% in this district, and I ran with a focus on jobs, jobs, jobs,” he said. He said his post on the tax policy-oriented Ways and Means Committee, where he drew on his background as a certified public accountant and tax lawyer, put him in position to mold significant, small-business-friendly parts of the 2017 tax-cut-and-reform bill that vastly strengthened the U.S. and South Carolina economies.
“After what we got done at the national level,” Rice said, “unemployment in my district is down by 75%, wages are up by 30%, and poverty is down by 30%.”
And if he is reelected and Republicans, as expected, take back a majority in the House, Rice will be a Ways and Means subcommittee chairman, a powerful post for more job-creation efforts.
With reference to his main competitor, Fry, Rice summed up the choice for voters:
“Why would the 7th district of South Carolina turn out an experienced legislator who has accomplished a lot for the country and the state and the district in favor of an unaccomplished, nondescript, personal injury lawyer when there is really no policy difference, other than that my voting record is more conservative than his is?”