MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — South Carolina state Representative Russell Fry — an ambitious young conservative from Surfside Beach — trounced U.S. Rep. Tom Rice in his bid for Congress on Tuesday, snagging a re-election win from a five-term incumbent who had committed Republicans’ one cardinal sin: crossing Donald Trump.
It was Rice’s vote to impeach the former president last year after the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol that angered GOP voters across his district, which gave two-thirds of its vote to Trump in 2020.
Unofficial results on Tuesday showed Fry winning 51% of the vote in the GOP primary, enough to beat Rice and avoid a run-off election against him.
Tuesday, Rice called Fry to concede the race.
“You ran a great race and you’re going to make a great congressman,” Rice told Fry in a brief phone call. “I’ll do anything I can to help. Good luck, buddy. Good luck.”
Meanwhile, across town, Fry celebrated. Chants of ‘Fry That Rice’ echoed across the small bar as “Eye of the Tiger” played over the speakers. Tuesday was also Trump’s birthday.
“This is about reclaiming what is best about America, and I know in districts like this all across the country that tonight is a strong signal that our best days are yet to come,” Fry said in a jubilant eight-minute speech at the 8th Avenue TIki Bar and Grill in downtown Myrtle Beach.
Fry, the 37-year old Majority Whip for Republicans in Columbia, rose swiftly through the ranks of the powerful South Carolina GOP and emerged as a front runner against Rice shortly after announcing his challenge in August last year, earning the backing of several party leaders.
Fry made Rice’s impeachment vote the centerpiece of his campaign and earned Trump’s backing in February. Trump then flew to Florence in March to rally with Fry and his pick in South Carolina’s 1st District, Katie Arrington, who failed to topple incumbent U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace, another Trump target, on Tuesday.
And it was that endorsement that swung the race for Fry. While some conservatives in Horry County declared that Fry was too politically similar to Rice to deserve Trump’s blessing, others on Tuesday said Trump’s backing was enough for them to cast a ballot for Fry.
Throughout the campaign, voters have obsessed over Rice’s vote to impeach with some claiming he was no longer fit for office even though he voted for Trump’s priorities 94% of the time.
Tuesday asked voters to clarify to whether or not Rice could maintain a base of support in a deep-red district that twice voted for Trump and voters answered: No.
Indeed, the stain of the impeachment vote on an otherwise near-perfect Trump record was enough for South Carolina voters to send Rice home. Fry said he received a “gracious” phone call from Rice before his victory speech.
“Now is the time for us to unite as Republicans. The primary election is a lot like a family squabble sometimes. We can disagree and we can get hot under the collar but as the primary is over, it’s time to coalesce as one Republican family,” he said.
In a statement, South Carolina GOP Chairman Drew McKissick congratulated both Fry and Trump.
“South Carolina, especially the Seventh Congressional District, is enthusiastically supportive of America First principles,” McKissick said. “We appreciated working together on election integrity legislation during his time in the General Assembly, and look forward to working together during his time in Congress.”
But up until the moment Rice conceded, the race was about Trump’s revenge on Republicans who didn’t align with him.
For Rice, too, the election was about Trump’s vengeance. He told reporters Tuesday that Trump likely identified a possible victor in Fry and threw his weight behind the state representative.
“This is about revenge. It’s not about policy,” Rice said Tuesday. Rice, after conceding to Fry, thanked his supporters for sending him to Washington for a decade. Earlier in the evening, he offered his thanks to the voters of the 7th District.
“Its a privilege and an honor that they allowed me to represent them for so many years,” Rice said. “I wish them nothing up the best, I love Horry county, I love every county in my district.”
HOW WE GOT HERE
Almost immediately after news broke of Rice’s vote, the Republican Party in Horry County and in South Carolina held emergency meetings to vote to censure the five-term congressman for his impeachment vote.
Horry County Republicans said they were “shocked” when they heard Rice had broken with Trump, who he had supported until Jan. 6.
Rice, though, has said he wears his vote as a badge of honor and repeatedly defended his decision at town halls, campaign events and in interviews. He argued that Trump’s unwillingness to stop the violence on Jan. 6 amounted to a violation of the U.S. Constitution, which Rice said he was elected to uphold.
But many conservatives in Horry County didn’t buy that argument and began a feverish effort to find a challenger to run against him. Ultimately, more than a dozen people declared races against Rice for his seat. And Horry County conservatives, despite their distaste for Rice, failed to rally around a single candidate to replace him, leaving six challengers in the running as of Tuesday.
Rather, a crowded field of challengers emerged including Fry, Horry County Board of Education Chairman Ken Richardson, Cheraw physician Dr. Garrett Barton and Christian speaker Barbara Arthur.
Former Myrtle Beach Mayor Mark McBride also declared a run, as did state Rep. William Bailey, who later dropped out.
Conservative media personality Graham Allen, too, declared a run against Rice and raised substantial money for a challenge after he announced his race on Fox News. Allen, though, lives in western South Carolina and had no ties to the Grand Strand, causing some locals to discount his candidacy.
But Trump, despite the crowded field, was set on ousting Rice from office. Late last year, he called for “good and SMART America First conservatives” to run Republicans like Rice out of office.
In February, Allen dropped out after speaking with Trump. Days later, Trump announced he would back Fry, and he traveled to Florence in March to rally with him and Arrington.
But Horry County conservatives — the voting base of the 7th District — had doubts about Fry, and some said they were upset Trump chose to endorse him.
One activist, Chad Caton, even traveled to Mar-a-Lago and met with Trump adviser Bill Stepian in an attempt to get Trump to endorse someone else. Some said they wished Trump would have stayed out of the race entirely.
A straw poll by the Horry County GOP later showed equal support for both Richardson and Barton. But voters on Tuesday broke for the two men at the front of the crowded field, sending Fry to Washington without a run-off.
Across Horry County on Tuesday, several voters said Rice’s vote to impeach Trump was a bridge too far, and that they wanted to stick with Trump’s version of the Republican Party. That’s how Bill Pollack, of Myrtle Beach, said he felt. “
Everything Tom Rice is accusing (Fry) of, Tom Rice has done. It’s time to get these incumbents out of there,” he said.
Other voters, though, like Dreisa Sherrill, said while they disagreed with Rice’s impeachment vote, they were willing to stick with him.
“The sum total of it is I think that was an error of judgment that I don’t think that is consistent with the way he is so I’ve kind of not forgotten, but I’ve forgiven,” she said.
Fry, meanwhile, pitched himself to voters as pro-Trump conservative with working-class roots — at once pledging allegiance to the former president and assuring voters that he understood their economic concerns.
He painted Rice as a career politician who used his perch in Washington to enrich himself, all the while leaving the Trump supporters in his district behind.
Fry, though, was not universally popular and Horry County voters on Tuesday cited his Trump endorsement as the primary reason they chose him over another candidate. If he was good enough for Trump, he was good enough for them, they reasoned.
Still, Fry was widely considered Rice’s main opponent and watched returns flow in from 8th Ave Tiki Bar and Grill in downtown Myrtle Beach on Tuesday. With a patio overlooking the Atlantic, it took on a heavy political feel.
Handmade “VOTE TODAY FOR RUSSELL FRY” placards were perched on dining booths. A podium was also set up fronted by an official campaign sign playing up Fry’s endorsement by Trump.
Donning a sparkly “TRUMP” lapel pin, Karen Schoeck of Myrtle Beach said she was drawn to Fry’s “genuineness.”
“He’s extremely conservative and I think he has the best chance to win over Tom Rice,” she said.
Schoeck was among a a core of Fry backers who watched election returns across the vast 7th congressional district on their phones, cheering every time their man picked up more votes.
Fry said he’ll continue to campaign aggressively through the November general election, promising to “knock on doors in Marion” and “wave signs” in his native Surfside Beach.
“Tonight, I make this vow to you. When we win in November, I will work every single day to justify your trust,” he said.
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