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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Nancy Mace’s district moved right. Then she helped oust McCarthy.

Nancy Mace’s transformation from denouncing the likes of Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida, to joining him in the first overthrow of a sitting speaker underscores a truism: Voters lead their politicians; politicians don’t lead their voters.

By Jonathan Weisman

When South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District evoked wide sand beaches, Spanish moss, oyster and cocktail bars and hot yoga, its Republican member of Congress, Nancy Mace, made her name appealing for moderation on abortion, climate change and marijuana legalization, while calling out the GOP’s biggest bomb throwers as bigoted clowns.

Then in 2022 came the redrawing of district lines, as rural reaches like Cordesville, South Carolina, with their modest one-story brick homes and prefabricated double-wides, replaced the graceful mansions and Black neighborhoods of Charleston. So last week, when Mace shocked Washington and joined seven hard-core conservatives to oust Rep. Kevin McCarthy from the speaker’s chair, her new constituents were not surprised.

“I’ve always heard the squeaky wheel gets the oil, and when you’re a female, you don’t get heard unless you’re loud,” said Janet Jurosko, a new constituent of Mace’s from Cordesville and the auditor of Berkeley County, South Carolina, which joined the 1st District in its totality last year. “I think she’s doing a good job — I really do.”

Mace still calls herself an iconoclast, but her transformation from denouncing the likes of Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., to joining him in the first overthrow of a sitting speaker underscores a truism: Voters lead their politicians; politicians don’t lead their voters.

Though Mace’s turn to the MAGA wing of the GOP has been ongoing, the increasingly red nature of her district may help explain her latest move. She weathered a Republican primary challenge from the right in 2022 from a candidate endorsed by former President Donald Trump and learned the lesson that criticizing or opposing Trump in the GOP would always be a trial.

But voters in her district believe the new map charted her course.

“Nancy has always been and will always be a maverick,” said Josh Whitley, a Berkeley County commissioner and a Mace ally. “But she has also always been very mindful of her constituents.”

The way South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District was redrawn by the Republican-led Legislature touches on two consequential effects of gerrymandering at once: political dysfunction and polarization, and the potential for Black disenfranchisement. As Mace helps choose a new speaker in the Capitol on Wednesday, her district’s map will be the subject of oral arguments before the Supreme Court where the conservative supermajority has recently shown sensitivity to the issue of racial gerrymandering.

Fresh off ruling that the Alabama Legislature had unlawfully diluted the strength of Black voters and ordering that congressional maps be redrawn — and rebuking GOP legislators’ second attempt — the court will decide, most likely by January, whether South Carolina’s reworked 1st District constitutes an illegal racial gerrymander. The current House map moved 62% of the Black voters in Charleston County — 30,000 of them — to the 6th District, a seat that Rep. James Clyburn, a Black Democrat, has held for three decades, and moved inland white voters such as Jurosko into the 1st District.

In 2020, she beat an incumbent Democrat, Joe Cunningham, by a single percentage point to win the seat. With the new map, Mace won reelection in 2022 by 14 points.

“We were already able to convince three judges that this was a racial and not a partisan gerrymander,” said Antonio Ingram II, an assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and a litigator on the South Carolina case. “We’re confident the Supreme Court will agree.”

Mace declined to comment for this article. She has ascribed her shifting allegiances toward the GOP’s right-wing rebels to a natural independent streak.

“I’ve had my ups and downs with a lot of members in Congress, because as an independent voice, I will call the balls and strikes regardless of the consequences,” she said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Mace’s rightward shift reflects the broader politics of the country, which is tearing apart along partisan lines, driven by the self-sorting of voters into Democratic and Republican districts and states, and by politicians drawing district maps that make House members far more wary of challenges from their own party than of defeat by the opposition party.

In 2020, Mace was a prized Republican recruit, the first female graduate of the Citadel, South Carolina’s military college.

In Washington, she said in her first speech on the House floor that the House needed to “hold the president accountable” for the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack. She traded barbs with some of the most prominent of Trump’s allies in the House Republican Conference, calling out Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado for anti-Muslim comments. She memorably used a series of emojis — a bat, a pile of excrement and a crazy clown — to describe Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and clashed with Gaetz, who amplified an attack by right-wing provocateur Jack Posobiec denouncing Mace as a “scam artist” for promoting coronavirus vaccinations.

Though Trump endorsed a Republican challenger, Katie Arrington, against her last year, Mace prevailed.

The redrawing of South Carolina’s 1st District did not just add Republican voters. It diluted the power of affluent, genteel “country club” Republicans and transplanted northern retirees from coastal towns such as Isle of Palms, Sullivan’s Island, Kiawah Island and Hilton Head. The district didn’t just become more Republican. It became more Trumpist.

After her landslide reelection, she has found a fiercely partisan voice within the Republican-led House driving the impeachment inquiry of President Joe Biden with unsupported accusations of broad familial corruption. She claimed to have suffered long-term ailments from her COVID-19 vaccination and has waded into transgender issues, for instance snapping at hearing witnesses for using “woke” language like “pregnant people.”

The day after she joined rebels to oust McCarthy, Mace found herself in the 19th century brick town house of Steve Bannon, the former Trump adviser who was convicted last year of contempt of Congress, for a joint appearance on Bannon’s podcast with her former antagonizer, Gaetz.

Her inland voters are fine with the new Nancy.

“It’s politics — hello,” Jean Moureau, 68, said as he stood outside Howard’s Restaurant in Moncks Corner, in North Berkeley County. “We’ll be on whatever side our bread is buttered.”

His lunch mate, Sue Stevenson, 70, liked what she was seeing in Mace, “absolutely.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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