A Military School Barrier-Breaker Is Gunning for Congress
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she has gone against the grain for Republicans — and now is their best hope to pick up a key seat.
Nancy Mace entered her race to become Charleston’s representative in Congress last June with a bang. Her very first ad was a broadside against the “same old, same old” candidates sent to Washington, with ominous black-and-white footage of men trading briefcases at the Capitol. “For years, I’ve beaten the expectations set by others. ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that.’ You know what I say? To hell with all of that.”
The first female cadet to graduate from the Citadel, the military college of South Carolina, doesn’t mince words … a valuable trait with an electorate that seems to appreciate blunt authenticity over decorum these days. “You can’t go through an experience like that without having the courage to speak up for yourself,” says Mace, who received death threats as a history-making student. The 42-year-old used to run a public relations firm and is now a real estate agent while raising two kids as a single mother. And last year she earnestly told her story of being sexually assaulted as a teenager to fellow South Carolina lawmakers, advocating to make exceptions for rape and incest in a fetal heartbeat abortion bill that ultimately didn’t become law.
At first glance, she looks like the aspirational female candidates who powered the 2018 Democratic wave election. But in fact, Mace is an unapologetic conservative, pro-life despite her stance on exceptions, and wants to “build the wall” and give President Donald Trump “an ally in Congress” after working as a field director for the president in 2016. “That’s where I learned how to campaign, what the grassroots means,” Mace says. A Republican state representative sporting a fierce libertarian streak, she’s been endorsed by everyone from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to Kentucky Sen. Ran Paul to the Club for Growth, among other conservative groups.
I’m hoping once we get through [the pandemic] that the silver lining will be that we can all acknowledge government is too big.
She is “a uniquely impressive candidate,” said McCarthy in a March statement, touting “her deep local roots and impressive life story” while promising to help her raise money. That appears to be a promise kept, considering Mace has raised $1.2 million to far outpace the three other Republicans competing in the June 9 primary.
If she prevails, she will face Democratic Rep. Joe Cunningham, a shocking winner of the longtime GOP seat in 2018 — and one who has already raised $2.6 million for the cycle. And Mace still may need to assuage concerns from members of her own party: She lost a 2014 primary challenge against U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, and some Republicans are loath to forgive her former business partnership with FITSNews blog founder Will Folks, who alleged in 2010 that Nikki Haley had an extramarital affair with him. Haley went on to become South Carolina governor, ambassador to the U.N. and now is an oft-rumored future presidential hopeful.
Talking by phone in late March, Mace isn’t thinking about those things. Instead, her days are a case study in how coronavirus has completely changed campaigns. Her website is now a public service advisory; her email list no longer a donation pipeline but an information highway. Twice in our interview she gets interrupted, and she’s texting constantly while trying to get a personal protective equipment distributor in Memphis to send some of its 40 million item supply to South Carolinians.
“This is what I signed up for … I’m just trying to be a resource,” says Mace, who ultimately never served in the military due to an ADHD diagnosis but later learned rapid-response communication skills as a master’s student at the University of Georgia.
Mace has remained consistent, even as the White House has sent confusing mixed messages. “If we hunker down now, we’re going to have the best outcome in the long run,” she says, and has been social distancing since the start of March (South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster waited until April before issuing a mandatory stay-home order). Meanwhile, Cunningham tested positive for the coronavirus in March after coming into contact with a sick colleague in Congress. “My thoughts are with him and his family,” Mace says, “but I’m also hoping that people will take this as a warning to take this illness, to take social distancing seriously.”
While some Democrats have argued for greater government protections to fight off economic collapse as states move to stay-at-home orders, Mace believes regulations helped cause this mess. Flexing her libertarian stances, she opposes unnecessary licensing requirements for small business owners and contractors that need more help than ever as unemployment claims soar. She says such licensing holds back medical providers who must prove to the state that there’s a local need before setting up shop, potentially leaving gaps in a pandemic that the free market could have helped fill.
“You have to have a license to hang wallpaper in South Carolina. It’s sort of like, WTF?” Mace says. “I’m hoping once we get through this that the silver lining will be that we can all acknowledge government is too big, and costs too much, and it’s to our detriment.” For now, though, Mace is willing to accept the $2 trillion CARES Act, even if it includes some causes she feels shouldn’t be a part of the coronavirus stimulus package, such as $75 million in funding for arts organizations. “If 80 to 90 percent of it is what’s going to work … those are pretty decent [numbers],” she says.
She has come a long way. After her childhood sexual assault, Mace says she “quit on life,” dropping out of high school to wait tables at a Waffle House by the interstate. But she fought to graduate from the Citadel, to build a career for herself and now has a great shot to win a district that national handicappers rate as tossup. “Cunningham is very vulnerable,” says Bob Oldendick, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina. “Nancy Mace is a formidable candidate.”
And this seat has shown the ability to mint conservative stars, launching the careers of former Gov. Mark Sanford and current Sen. Tim Scott. Mace says she’ll rip up regulations and be an independent voice if given a shot in D.C. Her path thus far has assured one thing: She won’t be intimidated.
This story has been updated to clarify that Mace no longer has a business relationship with Will Folks.