The South Carolina Republican Party on Saturday voted to censure Rep. Tom Rice, more than two weeks after the congressman voted with nine other Republicans to impeach former President Donald J. Trump.
The move amounts to a formal rebuke of the fifth-term congressman, but won’t cause him to be removed from office. The South Carolina GOP doesn’t currently have a process for recalling an elected official.
But the censure vote is nevertheless significant and signals the deep anger of Republican voters and leaders in South Carolina toward Rice for his vote. He already faces a slate of potential challengers in the 2022 Republican primary race. Local politicians like South Carolina Rep. William Bailey and Horry County School Board Chairman Ken Richardson have both signaled they may run against Rice next year. Former Myrtle Beach Mayor Mark McBride is also said to be considering a run against Rice.
“We made our disappointment clear the night of the impeachment vote. Trying to impeach a president, with a week left in his term, is never legitimate and is nothing more than a political kick on the way out the door,” said Drew McKissick, the chairman of the South Carolina GOP, in a statement Saturday afternoon. “Congressman Rice’s vote unfortunately played right into the Democrats’ game, and the people in his district, and ultimately our State Executive Committee, wanted him to know they wholeheartedly disagree with his decision.”
The censure vote is also a signal about the direction the Republican Party could be leaning in nationally. In Arizona, the state Republican party voted to censure two high-profile political figures — former Sen. Jeff Flake and Cindy McCain, wife of the late Sen. John McCain — for not supporting Trump. Other Republicans have already traveled to Wisconsin to campaign against Rep. Liz Cheney, another one of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump.
Though he was a longtime supporter of Trump, and spent considerable time campaigning for the former president, Rice’s supporters said they felt “betrayed” by his vote to impeach, turning on the president at a critical moment.
Rice has said he voted to impeach Trump because he believed the president didn’t do enough to separate himself from the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6.
“The purpose of it was to intimidate members of Congress to vote the way the president wanted them to vote,” he told a man who asked how he would redeem himself after the vote during a virtual town hall on Monday. “If you want somebody who kowtows to bullies and forgets about the Constitution when it gets hard, I’m not your guy.”
Rice did not immediately return a voicemail and text message seeking comment Saturday afternoon.
How we got here
Shortly after news broke that Rice had voted alongside Democrats and nine other Republicans to impeach Trump for his role in inciting the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol Building, South Carolina Republicans began making moves to rebuke him, moving swiftly to ensure their displeasure was clear.
“We were all surprised. We were all disappointed, extremely disappointed. it was something that just hit us,” said Dreama Purdue, co-chair of the Horry County Republican Party said earlier in the week. “They called it a gut punch. That’s basically how we all felt.”
According to Purdue and other Republican leaders in Rice’s district, Jerry Rovner, the chairman of the 7th Congressional District GOP, coordinated with party leaders in Horry, Georgetown, Florence, Dillon, Marion, Marlboro, Darlington and Chesterfield Counties to rally support for a censure vote.
To censure an elected official in South Carolina, a county-level party must first successfully vote to censure the person before the statewide executive committee, made up of party leaders and elected officials, votes. Terry Hardesty, the state executive committeeman for Berkeley County, said that both the Orangeburg and Dorchester County Republican parties successfully passed measures in favor of censuring Rice in the days and weeks after his vote to impeach. Then, the state GOP’s resolutions committee must vote to move the censure resolution forward, a vote that took place Wednesday evening, Hardesty said Thursday.
All of that paved the way for Saturday afternoon’s vote.
The vote to censure Rice is a clear signal from the rank and file of South Carolina’s GOP that voters favor Trump’s style of politics and will stick by those who support him and his policies. Though Trump will soon face an impeachment trial in the Senate that has the potential to bar him from elected office, the Republican Party here has signaled it will stick by his side, no matter what.
Rice didn’t return a voicemail or text message on Saturday seeking comment on the vote to censure him.
But since he voted in favor of impeaching Trump, Rice has attempted to explain why he did so.
On Jan. 6, after his political allies held rallies near the Washington Monument in D.C., Trump addressed a crowd of his supporters who had traveled to the city to protest Congress’ certifying the results of the 2020 Presidential election. Referred to as a “Stop the Steal” rally, Trump urged his supporters to not accept the outcome of the election, believe that widespread voter fraud caused President Joe Biden to wrongfully be declared victorious and “walk down to the Capitol” to protest lawmakers certifying the result.
What followed was a mob on the Capitol in which Trump’s supporters broke through police barricades, broke into the building and vandalized it, forcing lawmakers and staff to hide. Five people died following the melee, including a police officer. Two other officers died by suicide after the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, Politico reported.
“I was on the floor of the House of Representatives when the rioters were beating on the door with tear gas, zip tie restraints, and pipe bombs in their possession,” Rice wrote in a statement following his Jan. 13 vote to impeach Trump. “It is only by the grace of God and the blood of the Capitol Police that the death toll was not much, much higher.”
Rice added that he was disappointed with Trump’s lack of a robust response to the violence.
“…The President has not addressed the nation to ask for calm. He has not visited the injured and grieving. He has not offered condolences,” he wrote. “I have backed this President through thick and thin for four years. I campaigned for him and voted for him twice. But, this utter failure is inexcusable.”
At his virtual town hall on Monday, Rice offered further explanation to his voters, some of whom thanked him, others of whom promised to vote him out of office.
“It wasn’t an easy thing to do,” Rice told voters Monday. “I have more allegiance to our country and our constitution than I do to Donald Trump.”
He added: “We can never let that happen again. We almost lost our country that day.”