How Capitol Hill Drama Made A Mess For Nancy Mace

The ghost of Kevin McCarthy('s speakership) still looms over Nancy Mace.
The ghost of Kevin McCarthy(‘s speakership) still looms over Nancy Mace.
Illustration:Jianan Liu/HuffPost; Photo:Getty Images

Things seemed to be going well for Nancy Mace two years ago. The South Carolina Republican was a rising star in Congress and had just fended off a primary from a Trump-backed opponent. She was on TV a lot. And that winter, Mace delivered a searing roast of her colleagues at D.C.’s annual press club dinner, wearing a half-sheer, floor-length black gown.

But since her unexpected vote to remove Kevin McCarthy as House speaker in October, Mace hasn’t been having such a good time. She’s become embroiled in a nasty public feud with the now-former speaker. Many of Mace’s staffers abandoned her and then brutally trashed her to the media. Her former chief of staff weighed trying to primary her.

Congress is a place where lawmakers with big egos take nakedly self-serving risks to become famous. But Mace may be an example of what happens when that springboard to fame goes awry.

The two-term Republican, known for being the first woman to graduate from the once all-male Citadel military college, took a chance when she aligned herself with Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz and the other six attention-seeking House Republicans who forced a vote on McCarthy’s speakership. The move plunged the House into leaderless chaos for three weeks — and for Mace, set into motion a staff revolt, a seemingly endless cycle of bad press and, now, a tough reelection.

Mace faces a primary Tuesday that will test how much goodwill this all has cost her in South Carolina’s coastal low country. Mace is locked in a race against Catherine Templeton, an official in former Gov. Nikki Haley’s administration who entered with a nudge from McCarthy’s advisors. Templeton claims Mace “flip-flops for fame.”

The former speaker, who retired at the end of last year, hasn’t hidden the fact that he’s working against the members responsible for ending his career. McCarthy told CNN in November that Mace didn’t deserve another term because of her “flip-flopping.” In April, a McCarthy-aligned super PAC spent $700,000 on ads targeting Mace and Reps. Eli Crane (R-Ariz.) and Bob Good (R-Va.) — all of whom voted against McCarthy.

It’s Mace’s second serious primary as an incumbent who flipped a swing seat in 2020 — but her first as an incumbent with Donald Trump’s endorsement. After criticizing the former president, she’s now fully embracing the MAGA movement. But her transformation does not ring true to some GOP activists in the district, who don’t understand what this version of Nancy Mace stands for.

“Less than a year ago, she said she’s a caucus of one, she’s independent. Then all of the sudden she’s ultra-MAGA. So which way are you? People are confused,” said Xiaodan Li, the founder of Friends of Liberty, a conservative group that’s backing Templeton.

Catherine Templeton, a former official in ex-Gov. Nikki Haley's administration, is hoping to beat Nancy Mace in a primary for South Carolina's 1st District.
Catherine Templeton, a former official in ex-Gov. Nikki Haley’s administration, is hoping to beat Nancy Mace in a primary for South Carolina’s 1st District.
AP Photo/Meg Kinnard

Mace’s critics also point to how just two years ago, McCarthy helped Mace beat Katie Arrington, Trump’s pick in the GOP primary, after Mace was critical of Trump for his support of the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. McCarthy did significant fundraising for Mace. She returned the favor, generally supporting McCarthy — up until she voted to get rid of him.

Mace justified her vote against McCarthy by arguing she did it to advance her own legislative priorities on issues like access to contraception and rape kits, which she said were being sidelined by the then-speaker.

Observers like Matt Wylie, a national GOP consultant who lives and votes in Hilton Head, in Mace’s district, said it seemed like just another way for Mace to make a name for herself in Congress. “She decided against voting for McCarthy as speaker in the end because it was another opportunity to get on TV,” Wylie said. “I think I had a fundraising appeal within minutes of taking that vote.”

After Mace’s chief of staff got caught trying to negotiate between McCarthy and Mace during what ex-staffers described to HuffPost as an especially tense time, Mace’s vote against McCarthy sent her office into disarray.

“[Mace] was always a paranoid person, but that’s when it went sideways,” a former staffer said.

Mace didn’t respond to a request for comment about the campaign or the turnover in her office.

Mace parted ways with her longtime chief of staff, Dan Hanlon, in December, sparking an exodus of key staffers. Aggrieved former Mace aides leaked unflattering stories to the press about their ex-boss, including that she talked about wanting to get punched on Jan. 6, 2021, so she could get on TV. A month after leaving, Hanlon filed paperwork to challenge Mace for her seat.

It’s virtually unheard of on the Hill for a staffer to run against their boss. But Hanlon ultimately did not follow through with his threat to primary Mace once it became clear that Templeton was a real challenger, with access to donors and a line to McCarthy’s advisors.

“At the end of the day, she is my congresswoman. I am a resident of Hilton Head. As a voter, I lost confidence in Nancy Mace,” Hanlon told HuffPost. “The race was never about me. It was always about having a serious person for a serious job.”

It’s not clear how much Mace’s D.C. drama matters to voters. Mace was solidly ahead of Templeton by 25 points in a recent public poll, and is favored to win reelection if she clinches the nomination. And even though Templeton managed to moderately outraise Mace in the last fundraising quarter, Mace has spent almost $1.6 million since the beginning of the election cycle to Templeton’s $400,000, according to FEC reports (though these don’t capture the race’s home stretch or the major outside spending that’s poured into the district).

In the final weeks of the campaign, Templeton, who was endorsed by South Carolina GOP Rep. Joe Wilson, has gone after Mace for a report in the Washington Post that alleged Mace may have overcharged the House under a program that allows members to reimburse themselves for living expenses. Throughout the campaign, Mace has called Templeton, who didn’t respond to requests for comment for this piece, McCarthy’s “puppet.”

But even the former staffers who left during the McCarthy episode don’t see Mace’s primary as a career-ender.

“Last cycle she thought that Donald Trump should be sent to prison. This cycle she’s the most MAGA person out there. She has no shame and she doesn’t care at all. All that matters to her is that she wins. She enjoys the fight, and she’s super smart and I think able to pull off what a lot of people wouldn’t be able to because she understands the dynamics of where she needs to be,” said another former staffer.

Will Folks, Mace’s former business partner and an ex-GOP operative who runs a South Carolina digital news outlet, praised Mace for her “independence” in the McCarthy vote and said she’s always been her own best adviser when it comes to her image.

“A lot of folks, you’re not your best PR advisor. But I think she’s always been her best PR advisor,” Folks said. “She’s definitely got a little bit of an edge, and you want somebody that’s maybe a little willing to have an impulsive reaction from time to time.”