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After voting to impeach Trump, Rep. Rice faces primary challengers

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Former President Donald Trump wants to unseat one of the lawmakers who voted to impeach him. Representative Tom Rice was one of the few Republicans to do that for Trump's role in the January 6 attack on the Capitol last year. Trump has endorsed a primary challenger to Rice. Here's Victoria Hansen of South Carolina Public Radio.

VICTORIA HANSEN, BYLINE: It is a chilly morning along the Waccamaw River in Conway, near Myrtle Beach, and the waterway, known for flooding, is calm. But raging yards away - a handful of protesters waving signs outside a riverfront community center. One reads, Rice hates Trump more than he loves America, referring to Tom Rice, the district's Republican congressman.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And he decides to vote against our guy and try to impeach him?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: He doesn't represent us.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He doesn't need us anymore.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: No.

HANSEN: Inside the center, Rice speaks before a chamber of commerce crowd. He touts his accomplishments, stressing he voted with former President Trump more than 90% of the time. The impeachment vote got Rice censured by the state's Republican Party. But he says Trump was responsible for the Capitol riot.

TOM RICE: If we're going to have a scenario where the president can try to intimidate Congress into doing what he wants, then, shoot, might as well have a monarchy.

HANSEN: Rice vividly remembers the attack, seeing beaten, bloody police as he sought safety from the House floor. He says the president should have stopped the violence.

RICE: And if the consequences are that the people think that what happened is OK, then, you know, I guess I'm not the guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: When we were counting on Tom Rice to stand with President Trump, he let us down, turned his back on us.

HANSEN: State Representative Russell Fry is challenging Rice in the June primary and was just endorsed by Trump. He called Fry yesterday.

RUSSELL FRY: He said that he'd been following our work at the State House, from election integrity to the heartbeat bill to the Open Carry Act that we passed last year.

HANSEN: The 37-year-old supports Trump's false claims the election was rigged and says the former president was not responsible for the Capitol violence. Fry believes he better represents people in the 7th District because he listens to what matters to them. He says of Rice...

FRY: And he hasn't done that and continued to kind of poke the voters in the eye, and they're frustrated. And I get that because I'm frustrated, too.

HANSEN: Rice has a slew of primary challengers. Among them, 50-year-old single mother of three Jeanette Spurlock, who says the district doesn't need another politician. Making campaign T-shirts in a spare bedroom, she says she, too, is angry with Rice.

JEANETTE SPURLOCK: My heart is aching right now because I just feel betrayed, and a lot of people do feel betrayed.

HANSEN: Spurlock has no plans to drop out. She, like several others, just wants to run against Rice.

JERRY ROVNER: That's one of the vulnerabilities of Tom Rice. Nobody would have thought of doing that.

HANSEN: District Republican Party Chair Jerry Rovner believes the impeachment vote could cost Rice's job. He expects the number of challengers to dwindle with the Trump endorsement. And he says a primary that allows voters from any party to weigh in may favor the congressman.

ROVNER: So if there's not a viable candidate on the Democratic side, he's going to get a lot of votes because people are going to come in and vote in the primary. And that's where it'll be won or lost.

HANSEN: Rice feels he still has support in his district.

RICE: I will tell you that for every person that expresses disappointment, 10 people tell me, thank you. Now, are those the people that are going to vote in the Republican primary? I don't know.

HANSEN: What he does know is his political future could come down to one vote.

For NPR News, I'm Victoria Hansen in Conway, S.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "HOURGLASS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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