• The San Juan Daily Star

Trump earns split decision in South Carolina, backing one winner and one loser in GOP primaries

Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Sam Brown speaks with reporters at a campaign office in Las Vegas, Nev. on June 14, 2022.

By Jonathan Weisman and Jazmine Ulloa

Donald Trump scored a partial victory Tuesday in South Carolina’s Republican primary elections, as one Trump-backed Republican defeated a member of Congress who had voted to impeach him while another incumbent fended off the former president’s endorsed opponent.

The split decision in two House primaries gave conflicting signals about the former president’s hold on the Republican Party’s core activist voters as he faces renewed scrutiny of his actions surrounding his 2020 defeat.

But in Texas, Republicans got a clear harbinger of potential victories in the fall when a GOP candidate flipped the Rio Grande Valley seat of former Rep. Filemon Vela, a Democrat who resigned in March. Mayra Flores became the first Republican to represent the majority-Hispanic district in the seat’s 10-year history and the first Republican Latina sent to Congress in Texas.

In South Carolina, the two Republican incumbents — Reps. Tom Rice and Nancy Mace — had crossed the former president as he struggled to maintain power after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack, which is now under the spotlight of congressional hearings. Rice, a staunch conservative in a conservative coastal district, was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach him for inciting the riot. Mace, in her first speech as a newly elected freshman, said Trump bore responsibility for the deadly mayhem, although she did not vote to impeach him.

In turn, Trump backed Katie Arrington to take on Mace and state Rep. Russell Fry to challenge Rice, who said Trump has been on a “traveling revenge tour.” Trump, who turned 76 on Tuesday, had called on South Carolina voters to deliver him “a beautiful, beautiful birthday present” — twin defeats of Mace and Rice. Mace’s survival may have dampened that gift, but in the state’s northeast, Republican primary voters roundly rejected Rice, giving the incumbent only one-quarter of their votes.

Beyond South Carolina, Trump’s sway was being tested Tuesday in Nevada, where a series of Republican primaries were pitting candidates from Trump’s wing of the party against more mainstream conservatives.

The elections Tuesday represented something of a midpoint in a Republican primary season that has delivered decidedly mixed signals to party leadership. Trump has claimed some significant wins, propelling his chosen Senate candidates to victories, including J.D. Vance in Ohio and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania. However, his endorsed candidates have lost primary showdowns for governor in Georgia and Nebraska as well as a key secretary of state race in Georgia.

Still to come are contests that rank high on his vengeance list, such as Rep. Liz Cheney’s primary in Wyoming on Aug. 16. Before Arizona’s Aug. 2 primary, Trump has backed Kari Lake, a promoter of his false stolen election claims, to be the state’s next governor. To take on Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona, he picked Blake Masters, who was caught on tape promoting the conspiracy theory that one-third of the people outside the Capitol on Jan. 6 were FBI agents. Republican leaders worry that Trump will soon back Missouri’s disgraced former governor, Eric Greitens, for an open Senate seat.

In South Carolina, Rice was the second of the 10 impeachment Republicans to take his case for reelection to the party’s primary voters, and he was the first to lose. The other, Rep. David Valadao of California, clings to a slim lead over a Trump-aligned challenger, as vote counting continues after the primary there last week. Rice’s defeat means half of the 10 will not be returning to Congress next year, with other contests still to come, including Cheney’s uphill climb.

In the Republican upset in South Texas, Flores won a special election to fill the remainder of Vela’s term until the end of the year, becoming one of three Latinas to represent Texas in Congress. The seat will once again be up for grabs in the November general election. Yet even her temporary victory foreshadows broader Republican gains in the Democratic stronghold of South Texas. Flores — who was born in Tamaulipas, Mexico, and is the wife of a Border Patrol agent — raised 16 times the amount logged by her closest Democratic competitor, Dan Sanchez.

She has not received a formal endorsement from Trump, but she has campaigned as a Trump-inspired Republican focused on border security. Her campaign signs highlight three words: “Dios, familia, patria.” God, family, country.

The win by Flores sheds light on the splintering of the Latino vote in South Texas, where Hispanic residents have often been overlooked by national campaigns and disenfranchised from the state’s electoral process.

The presumption had been that greater Latino turnout would benefit Democrats, but South Texas has emerged as a key battleground after Trump saw swings in his favor in 2020 in Latino and largely rural, working-class counties near the border. Analysts have found Democrats have lost ground with Latino voters on the economy and the coronavirus pandemic, issues that helped Trump win over new Hispanic voters, despite their dislike or outright disdain for his hard-line approach on immigration and his demeaning of Mexicans and immigrants.

The gains have left Republicans believing that they have a chance to make those inroads permanent and have caused Democratic infighting over the best approach to counter the Republican enthusiasm.

In the sheer number of tossup contests, few states will rival Nevada this fall. Republicans see chances to unseat a host of top Democrats, including Gov. Steve Sisolak; Lt. Gov. Lisa Cano Burkhead; three Democratic members of the House; and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, the first Latina elected to Congress’ upper chamber.

Republican candidates have largely sought to align themselves with Trump, taking hard-right stances on abortion, guns, immigration and the teaching of race and gender in schools.

In the Nevada governor’s race, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo was expected to win the Republican nomination Tuesday and go head-to-head with Sisolak in November. He secured Trump’s endorsement and had about $3 million cash on hand as of April. He had been criticizing the governor for his mask mandates and his handling of the pandemic.

Sisolak, who had more than $9 million in campaign cash, abandoned the state’s mask mandate in February and has been heavily promoting Nevada’s economic rebound and the billions of dollars pumped into the state from federal coronavirus relief packages.

Cortez Masto is likely to face Adam Laxalt, who led Trump’s efforts to overturn the state’s 2020 election results. Laxalt — a former state attorney general and the grandson of a former Nevada governor and senator — must hold off a late surge from Sam Brown, a veteran. Brown was gravely wounded fighting in Afghanistan and has been running as Trump’s true acolyte.

Another backer of Trump’s campaign to reject the 2020 election results, state Assemblyman Jim Marchant, was expected to win his party’s nomination for secretary of state, a post that will allow him to oversee the 2024 election.

Some House contests in Nevada are showing even clearer lines between the Trump wing of the party and more traditional Republicans. The potential Republican challengers to Rep. Steven Horsford, a Democrat, include Sam Peters, an insurance agent backed by far-right Arizona Reps. Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs, as well as Annie Black, a more mainstream assemblywoman running in the primary against Peters.

Five Republicans hope to challenge Rep. Susie Lee, a Democrat. Among them is April Becker, a real estate lawyer who has raised the most money by far and has the backing of Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the House minority leader.

Rep. Dina Titus, a Democrat, has eight Republicans competing to challenge her, including a former House member, Cresent Hardy. But Carolina Serrano, a Colombian American immigrant, has the backing of both Republican leaders and Trump world. She won endorsements from Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, the party’s No. 3 House leader, as well as Laxalt and Richard Grenell, a former national security official in the Trump administration.

Titus told reporters that her campaign had “no clue” who would emerge out of the crowded Republican primary to take her on, but she added, “We’ll be ready for them.”

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