CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Two days after losing a bitter primary to a rival she once deemed a “sellout” for occasionally working with Democrats, Katie Arrington appeared at a “unity rally” to urge South Carolina Republicans to come together and back Rep. Nancy Mace in the fall general election.
Republicans, Arrington said, “may fight like banshees inside the house, but once we walk out that door, it’s one team, one fight.”
The cordial tone was striking in a Republican Party increasingly defined by an absolutist approach to politics. Former President Donald Trump, who backed Arrington, once refused to commit to supporting his GOP rivals if they emerged on top in the 2016 presidential primary. Since then, the party’s win-at-all-costs mentality has only deepened as any nods at compromise are rejected.
Sen. John Cornyn, for instance, was jeered at the Texas Republican convention last week after working with Democrats on modest changes to gun laws after a school massacre in the state last month. Eric Greitens, a GOP Senate candidate in Missouri, released an ad this week depicting him with a gun as he goes “hunting” for so-called RINOs, which stands for Republicans In Name Only. The video was so graphic that Facebook removed it and Twitter prevented it from being shared.
That’s what made the scene in South Carolina so notable. Aware that the coastal congressional district is one of the few places in the state where Democrats have been competitive, Republicans said it was important to move past the party’s internal divisions.
“We need to put our weight behind a selected candidate that most of the people wanted and be unified in that,” said Roger O’Sullivan, a Mount Pleasant retiree who had voted for Arrington, but will support Mace going forward. “It’s not going to happen tonight, but it has to certainly happen by November.”
Charleston-area voter JoAnne Knapp also expressed optimism for 1st District Republicans to come together even if they don’t always agree, likening the division to a union of spouses who maintain their individual viewpoints, yet compromise when necessary.
“It’s kind of like a marriage,” Knapp said. “If you stay steadfast in your ways, it’s not going to last.”
Mace has angered many Republicans with her criticism of Trump, particularly after he sparked the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. The violence, which unfolded during Mace’s first week in office, undermined Trump’s “entire legacy,” she said at the time. And while she’s a reliable conservative vote in Congress, she’s occasionally worked with Democrats on issues such as advocating for the LGBTQ community, legalizing marijuana and strengthening cybersecurity infrastructure.
Acknowledging that “people still feel very passionate” about the direction of the GOP, Charleston County Republican Chairman Maurice Washington said he was “optimistic” that the party could unite against Democrat Annie Andrews in the fall.
“We’ve got to rid the party of ‘old guard, new guard,’ and lose that term, ‘RINOs,’” Washington said, of the moniker for those not seen by some as true conservatives. “That’s not about unity, that’s about trust. And unless we bridge that trust gap, along with the unity gap, we’re not going to be successful. … But this is a good start.”
Beyond South Carolina, other Republicans have made some effort to bring the party together after a difficult primary. After being soundly defeated in Georgia’s GOP contest for governor last month, the Trump-backed David Perdue said he trusted voters and would “make damn sure” that Republicans defeat Democrat Stacey Abrams in the general election.
But some GOP efforts to encourage reconciliation have not always worked out as planned. At an event last month intended to rally Republicans around the party’s nominee for governor in Nebraska, the Trump-backed candidate in the race, Charles Herbster, made only a brief appearance and left without endorsing the winner, Jim Pillen.
And earlier this week in Alabama’s Senate runoff, Rep. Mo Brooks acknowledged that the “voters have spoken” in choosing Katie Britt as the GOP nominee. But, he added, “they might not have spoken wisely.”
And even in South Carolina, Arrington took a sharper tone just one day after the unity event. She called into a Charleston-area radio show to vow that, while she is “all for unity in the party” and would work to ensure Mace’s reelection, she would also “rally up” her supporters to impress upon Mace their viewpoint that she needs to tilt away from being conciliatory with Democrats.
“The only way to make her accountable is to stay on her,” Arrington said.
“I’m going to become Nancy Mace’s worst nightmare,” she continued. “She is going to have to understand that we are not going to be complacent. … I want a Republican to be successful, but I want a conservative Republican to be successful.”