Moments before the Republican congressional primary debate began Tuesday night, the moderator asked the four candidates to refrain from deploying disparaging remarks against each other.
It didn’t last.
Halfway through the 1st Congressional District debate, the attacks began with nearly all aimed at state Rep. Nancy Mace, the perceived front-runner.
Her opponents unloaded a barrage of criticism against her, casting Mace as everything from a candidate hand-picked by Washington insiders to someone who was disingenuous about her time working for President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Bikers for Trump founder Chris Cox of Mount Pleasant at times took the debate into his own hands, pulling out questions from his suit jacket and demanding answers about Mace’s endorsements.
He specifically named the conservative fiscal groups Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity, as well as her time on the Trump campaign.
“Was it your idea to leave the campaign in August at the convention or was it Donald Trump’s ’16 (campaign)?” he asked her.
Mace, a Daniel Island state lawmaker, shook her head and laughed before launching into her rebuttal.
“I just don’t know how to respond to people who just make stuff up. I don’t know how you defend something that’s totally unfounded, not based in reality or based in fact,” Mace said.
Cox interrupted the moderator, Charleston County Republican Party Chairman Maurice Washington, asserting that Mace did not answer the question.
He did this multiple times throughout the night, until the audience booed him.
“Please forgive me you if you think I’ve been a little harsh tonight,” he later said, explaining he felt it was his responsibility to raise this issues before Republican voters head to the polls June 9, just two weeks away.
As Republicans careen toward a primary that could determine the GOP nominee who’ll take on Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham in November, even some of the others who’d left attacks to others decided to jump into the fray.
Kathy Landing, a Mount Pleasant Town councilwoman who in recent weeks has opted for subtle digs rather than overt attacks, came out swinging, delivering one of the biggest lines of the night during the final 20 minutes of the debate.
The financial planner rattled off spending figures in the contest: $1 million in out-of-state and Washington special interests, plus $646,000 in itemized out-of-state donations to Mace, who she referred to only as “a certain candidate on the stage.”
“People are trying to buy this campaign right now and nobody can deny that,” she said. “The facts speak for themselves. What you need is you need someone that is the principled Lowcountry insider. We are the people that we want. We don’t want people to buy this election.”
Brad Mole, a Bluffton housing administrator, questioned whether Mace could secure the meetings she claimed with top officials, pushing back on Mace’s Trump ties.
“They ask me where’s your picture with Donald Trump. I say, ‘I don’t have one,'” Mole said, adding that he instead opts to push the politics rather than “pushing a picture.”
Hosted by the Charleston County Republican Party, the debate was the first time all four 1st Congressional District Republicans could take aim at each other in real-time in the same physical space, a product of the stilted campaign caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Policy differences were rare in the all-Republican field, something the candidates also acknowledged.
The debate also came at a pivotal point in the campaign with four candidates in the field. If no candidate wins at least 50 percent of the vote June 9, the top two vote-getters will have to compete in a June 23 runoff.
For the first time in nearly 40 years, South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District — which stretches from Charleston south to Hilton Head Island, and includes parts of Berkeley, Dorchester and Colleton counties — is no longer in Republican control.
The seat flipped blue in 2018 after Democrat Joe Cunningham won the seat in a shocking upset that stunned the nation. He clinched the victory over his Republican challenger by 1 percentage point.
Already Democrats are watching closely. Nearly three hours before the debate began, the attacks against Mace began, but this time from Democrats.
South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Trav Robertson accused the state lawmaker of working “tirelessly to personally smear Nikki Haley” during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign. Though the topic did not come up directly during the debate, a question about the former governor did when candidates were asked what they would say to win an endorsement from Haley.
Mace said she was the hardest worker on the stage, but declined to say whether Haley would support her.
The debate was the first socially distanced event held at the Charleston Marriott, which reopened on Friday.
Held inside the Crystal Ballroom, a grand space which typically holds around 800 people, a spray of 100 banquet chairs were arranged in front of a stage. Each seat was spaced exactly 6 feet apart from each other when measured from edge to edge.
The strength of the party’s loyalty to President Trump was on vivid display in the coastal slice of South Carolina, where Cox reiterated his support of the president in multiple responses.
“I have the personal phone number of the President of the United States,” Cox said, claiming Trump always returns his calls within a 23-hour time-frame.