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GOP Rep. Mace voted to certify the 2020 election but says she backs Trump. Can she win her S.C. primary?

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SUMMERVILLE, S.C. – Freshman Rep. Nancy Mace’s first job as a high school dropout was at the Waffle House off College Park Road in Ladson, South Carolina.

That was before she became the first woman to graduate from The Citadel, before she flipped South Carolina’s first congressional district — and before she criticized former President Donald Trump for his actions on Jan. 6.

Her reproof of the then-president over the Capitol riot landed her a Trump-backed challenger in Tuesday’s primary election, even as Mace now scrambles to woo Republicans and prove that she does, in fact, support the president, despite a vote to certify Joe Biden’s victory in 2020.

Mace’s maneuvering is about more than just her district, though. For people across the political spectrum, the race will help answer a basic question: How far can Republicans buck Donald Trump and still survive in office?

Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) speaks at a press conference on the introduction of the “Active Shooter Alert Act 2022,” outside of the U.S. Capitol Building on May 19, 2022 in Washington, DC.

“The direction of the Republican conference in 2023 is much more dependent on the fate of Republicans who did not vote to impeach (Trump) but have crossed Trump in some other way,” said David Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

“The way that Republicans in this predicament have been successful is to make the races more personal and less ideological,” Wasserman said. “That’s what we’re seeing Nancy Mace do in South Carolina.”

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On Sunday morning nine days before the primary, none of the employees or two tables of diners at the very Waffle House that Mace proudly traces her career back to said they were following the primary election or knew anything about the race.

Outside, below the restaurant’s signature yellow sign that lines highways throughout the South, three yard signs provided the only indication of the upcoming contest: one for Mace, and two for Katie Arrington that declared in all capital letters that she is the Trump endorsed candidate.

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Arrington versus Mace

If Arrington defeats Mace, it won’t be the first time she took out an incumbent in the district.

In 2018, Arrington primaried then-incumbent U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, a Trump critic. Trump endorsed her the day of the primary, and Arrington won the nomination.

She went on to lose the general to former Rep. Joe Cunningham, the first Democrat elected to represent the district in decades, 50.7% to 49.3%.

Arrington’s backers attribute the loss to a severe car accident before election day. Cunningham represented the seat for just one term before Mace won the seat back for Republicans in 2020 – also with the endorsement of Trump – 50.6% to 49.4%.

South Carolina Rep.Katie Arrington campaigns after voting for herself in the primary election, June 12, 2018 at Bethany United Methodist Church in Summerville, S.C.

Trump won the district by six points in 2020, and by about 13 points in 2016.

Whichever woman emerges from Tuesday’s primary will face Democrat pediatrician Annie Andrews in November.

“I think people understand that I’m not going to lose it. I won it for Republicans, and I’ll keep it in Republican hands,” Mace told USA TODAY while knocking doors in Monck’s Corner the week before the election.

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An overlap in the statehouse

Mace dropped out of high school but went on to become the first woman to graduate from The Citadel’s Corps of Cadets in 1999. She ran a PR and marketing firm with clients that included current GOP Sen. Tim Scott and former Rep. Mick Mulvaney, according to the Post and Courier.

Nancy Mace is congratulated by fellow band members after The Citadel Class of 1999 was dismissed from the long gray line Friday, May 7, 1999, in Charleston, S.C. Mace was the first woman to be a part of the traditional long gray line, consisting of all the graduating seniors, and became the first woman to graduate from The Citadel.

In 2014 she primaried GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, and in 2016 she worked for the Trump campaign. The following year she was elected to the state legislature, and in 2019 she launched her campaign for Congress.

In the statehouse, Mace pushed for the inclusion of exceptions for rape and incest in an abortion ban bill, citing her own rape while in high school – which she largely credits for pushing her to drop out.

Arrington also served in the state house, overlapping with Mace. After her congressional bid, she served as at the Pentagon as Chief Information Security Officer for the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, Acquisition and Sustainment.

Her job at the Pentagon has become a major talking point in the race because her security clearance in the role was suspended and she was placed on leave before ultimately resigning, after she was accused of improperly disclosing classified information.

According to the Associated Press, the issue revolved around Arrington communicating with a contractor mentioned in a top-secret briefing, whose name Arrington said had been revealed before she received the information.

Arrington has said that her departure from the Pentagon was political, telling the AP “I literally got blacklisted because I was a Republican, because I was associated with Trump.”

Some voters aren’t buying it.

“Her security clearance, that’s a huge thing. I’m a retired military person. I still work for the government. I’ve had the DOD clearance for 26 years,” said Jason Daley, a Trump supporter backing Mace from Mount Pleasant. “I’ve been investigated three different times. I’m still standing here and everyone knows who I am as a Republican, so it’s not a hit.”

The Mace campaign has slammed Arrington over the security clearance, a message that Mace said has been coming up more since her campaign did an ad on it.

Outside one home in Monck’s Corner, a man riding a lawnmower brought it up unprompted as Mace approached his door: “You’re in luck, we don’t like Ms. Arrington very much. She can’t keep her clearance, she can’t work for me.”

A mean tweet and cheap gas

Mace and her alliesalso criticize Arrington’s vote for a South Carolina’s 2017 gas tax overhaul while in the state legislature.

Arrington’s camp in turn calls Mace as a sellout who has chased media attention and prioritized issues that don’t matter to the district – including legislation she’s introduced around Britney Spears, marijuana and pandas.

House of Representatives candidate Katie Arrington stands on a step stool while speaking to a crowd during a rally with former U.S. President Donald Trump at the Florence Regional Airport on March 12, 2022 in Florence, South Carolina. The visit by Trump was his first rally in South Carolina since his election loss in 2020.

The top refrain from the Arrington campaign remains, however, that she has the endorsement of Trump, and that Mace does not as a result of her public break from the former president.

Trump looms large over the race, having backed Arrington, then Mace, then Arrington again in the last three elections for the seat.

“He is the most popular Republican figure in South Carolina,” Steven Wright, chair Dorchester County Republican Party, told USA TODAY at Summerville’s Coastal Coffee Roasters.

“Much of the press and pundits want to talk about his rhetoric, they want to talk about the way he behaved in office. I will take a mean tweet and $1.85 gas right now,” he said.

Trump endorsed Arrington just days after she announced her bid. In a February statement Trump said: “Katie Arrington is running against an absolutely terrible candidate… whose remarks and attitude have been devastating to her community, and not at all representative of the Republican party to which she has been very disloyal.”

“The number one thing that matters to him is loyalty, and he has stated publicly he feels that Congresswoman Mace has been disloyal,” said Wright, who is staying neutral in the primary due to his role as county chair.

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Past isn’t even past

On a telephone townhall a week before the election, Trump said Arrington is “fighting hard.”

“She’s a really good woman who’s working very hard and doing pretty well, I have to tell you,” Trump said.

Mace has a complicated history with Trump. She was a coalitions director and field director for his 2016 campaign and ran with his support.

“I helped run seven states for Trump in ’16. So I ran the ground game, phone banking the door knocking, the data,” Mace said while knocking doors near the Cooper River.  “That’s the irony in all this. I learned a lot on that campaign and a lot of folks that I worked with or that volunteered for me in those states are volunteering for me now.”

But just days after being sworn in, Mace broke hard with Trump as rioters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.

She said at the time that Trump and Republicans’ legacy for the previous four years was wiped out by the attack and voted to certify Trump’s defeat at the hands of Joe Biden.

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That decision is top of mind for some constituents who have decided to back Arrington instead.

“On Jan. 6, I was really looking for some strong leadership,” said stay-at-home mom Shannon Renfro at the Summerville Republican Women’s Club’s June meeting, who is voting for Arrington. “I was disappointed by an elected official who jumped to conclusions and rushed in front of a camera.”

While she criticized the former president heavily at the time, Mace has drifted back toward Trump.

After Trump endorsed Arrington, Mace recorded a selfie video in front of Trump Tower outlining her past support and ties to the former president.

“I was one of his earliest supporters,” Mace said in the video.

It may be a difficult sell: Mace did not vote to impeach the former president – but some in her district believe she did.

At the women’s club lunch, attendee Pat Antonsen, who said she was undecided in the race but leaning towards Mace, expressed concern that others in the district, including at the club meeting, believe Mace voted to impeach. “You hear that a lot,” she said.

Still, Mace has worked to woo Trump supporters in the district who may be convinced by his endorsement to back Arrington.

On the front porch of a constituent who said she will not be supporting Mace in the primary, the congresswoman quickly listed off her priorities around the economy and supply chain and stressed her support of Trump.

“I will tell you President Trump was the number one president,” Mace said. “I hope I have your support in November.”

Despite his large presence in the race, many are reluctant to make Tuesday’s results a referendum on Trump.

“If Mace wins they will say ‘Trump rejected in South Carolina.’ And if Katie wins, they will say ‘an insurrection happened in the first district.’ I don’t think either of those headlines will be right,” said Wright.

“I think that voters here have demonstrated time and time again, we’re independent in our thinking and whichever way you want to look at it, we need to not look at it through the eyes of Donald Trump.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: South Carolina primary: GOP Rep. Mace tries to woo Trump voters