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Nancy Mace's first 100 hours in Congress: threats, violence and challenging Trump

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When she collapsed onto the cold, leather couch in her new office around 4 a.m., Congresswoman Nancy Mace still wore a classic black romper, draped diagonally across one shoulder, selected for an elegant occasion.

Outside, rioters still plagued the streets of Washington, D.C.

Capitol police still patrolled in riot gear.

It was Thursday, and Mace felt unsafe returning to her hotel. What if rioters, who had just stormed and overtaken the Capitol building, were staying at her hotel? When she’d ventured outside a day earlier, an irate President Trump supporter had gotten in her face, shaking with rage over Mace’s refusal to go along with fellow Republicans’ plan to get Congress to overturn the election.

Taking that position wasn’t popular. Since getting sworn in four days earlier, Mace had been yelled at, insulted, threatened.

She’d spent Wednesday huddled in someone’s corner office, then stuck in a tunnel, then hunkered in her office with the lights off, her children texting her with worry.

Mace slept for two hours overnight. Then, grabbing her cellphone, she began to scroll.

She watched videos of rioters assaulting law enforcement officers, shoving them into broken glass, chasing them up stairs, storming past them.

Four people had lost their lives at the time. A woman had been shot and killed right outside the House chamber. More than 50 officers were injured, including several who were hospitalized. One would later die. 

Furious tears filled Mace’s eyes.

She had arrived in D.C. as a Trump supporter. Now, she thought, members of her own party had caused this.

“Millions of Americans were lied to,” she told The Post and Courier not long after waking up Thursday. “Millions of Americans were taken advantage of — their hearts, their minds and their wallets.”

Her phone buzzed. 

Fury she expressed about violence in one of America's most sacred places had struck a chord, vaulting her onto the national stage before she'd barely cast a vote. Overnight, the freshman congresswoman's words seemed everywhere, her face flashing from television screens across the nation.

Mace arrived in D.C. just a few days earlier, newly elected. Now it seemed every news outlet in the world wanted to talk to her.

She already had gotten coverage as the first Republican woman elected to Congress from South Carolina. But now, people applauded her prescience and courage. She’d gone on CNN, NPR, CBS, MSNBC. Nancy Mace was a national name.

She’d been a congresswoman for roughly 100 hours.

APTOPIX Congress Electoral College

The House Chamber is empty after an evacuation as protesters breached the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Summoning courage

It was a momentous time. On Sunday, Mace, a 43-year-old single mother of two, swore to uphold the Constitution and became a member of the 116th Congress.

She had flown into D.C. the day before with her two children. Like so many kids during the coronavirus pandemic, they were enrolled in online school. They wanted to come see their mother, be with her during this historic time.

They pleaded to stay all week. She agreed; they could go to school from her office. From there, they watched as she swore her oath.

But as the day went on, and Trump insisted that Congress could reverse the election in some kind of final showdown on Wednesday, she watched a social media frenzy brew.

Mace had long supported Trump, campaigning for him since his first presidential race. But now she grew worried.

She spent the previous weekend reading the Constitution, poring over the 12th Amendment and Title 3 of the U.S. Code. She wanted to understand exactly what they said about Congress’ power in the coming vote to certify electors.

It wasn’t confusing. Their role was ceremonial.

If we don’t follow that, she thought, we aren’t a nation at all.

She could not go along with the president and much of her party.

Mace had long ago learned some things about courage. Her father was a brigadier general, a war hero, the most decorated living graduate of The Citadel.

But nothing fueled her courage like a day when she was 16 years old. A friend and classmate sexually assaulted her. Afraid and ashamed, she’d blamed herself. She’d feared what other people would think.

She dropped out of high school. Her fire faded.

But then, she rediscovered her courage, a new and stronger kind, one that didn’t blame herself and wouldn’t bend to fear of what other people thought. She returned to school, earned her diploma and, in 1999, became the first female to graduate from The Citadel’s Corps of Cadets.

Reading the Constitution, she summoned that courage anew.

Mace announced publicly that she wouldn’t join Trump’s efforts. She spoke to outlets, including The Post and Courier, about her decision.

“I’m not going to be voting with any of those folks,” Mace said. “I am not going to vote to overturn the results of the Electoral College because I do not believe that Congress knows better than voters or better than the states.”

Mara Mellstrom, Mace’s chief of staff, knew her boss spent hours studying election law and the Constitution before making a decision.

“Honesty and clarity are Nancy Mace’s two greatest strengths,” Mellstrom said. “It was a difficult vote, but she knew all along. She swore an oath to the Constitution.”

Other members of South Carolina’s federal delegation didn't agree.

Sen. Lindsey Graham told CBS that the effort would “probably do more harm than good.” Sen. Tim Scott said nothing at first.

Her fellow GOP congressmen from South Carolina lined up behind Trump’s effort.

As the president and others planning the strategy ramped up their rhetoric, so did his followers. She scrolled through social media, and Mace grew increasingly worried. The tenor was brooding, threatening.

Suddenly, she didn’t want her children in the nation’s capital any longer.

Her mother and sister planned to fly home the next day, Monday. Mace hurried to buy her children tickets on the first flight out.

She told them why, trying to thread her goodbye to them with more love than alarm. She didn’t want them to be scared that their mom was in danger at work.

Even though she feared she was.

Threats become real

On Monday, she put her children on an airplane home to Charleston.

The next day, Tuesday, she ventured from her hotel to find something to eat. Bundled in a coat and hat, facemask on, she figured it was safe. Who would recognize her?

As she walked with a friend, someone approached her, an angry person who claimed to be a 1st District constituent who was irate that Mace wasn’t backing Trump’s effort to get Congress to overturn the election.

Mace tried to stay calm, to explain the Constitution didn’t allow for that. If they tried to pull this stunt, it would only open the door for Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to do the same thing in four years. They might never have a Republican president again.

But nothing she said mattered. The person continued to insist that Congress could do this, anger roiling into aggression, the person shaking with ire.

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Fear pricked Mace’s thoughts. As the screaming continued, she turned and walked away, then ducked into a store. She didn’t stay long. She grabbed a few groceries for her staff — hummus, chips, soda — then hurried back to her hotel.

She didn’t leave it again until 6 a.m. the next morning when she headed to the Capitol building for the big vote.

Day of infamy

Mace was in the chamber with Vice President Mike Pence presiding around 1 p.m. when, as promised, Republicans objected to the Arizona vote. The joint session recessed.

Along with other members, Mace headed back toward the Cannon House Office building nearby. She got about halfway when she learned the building had been evacuated. She wound up across the street, in the fifth floor of the Longworth House Office Building, huddled in a corner office. Her staff met her there.

When they tried to leave, they realized the Cannon building wasn’t cleared yet and got stuck in a tunnel with about 100 other people. They finally reached her new office around 4 p.m., as the place went into lockdown.

She and her staff locked the door, turned off the lights and stayed quiet.

Mace had never been through anything like it. Hours passed.

Her children texted her every hour, afraid. Mace spoke to her family, took press calls and compared notes with colleagues. Outside, sirens blared.

They stayed hunkered down for six hours, until around 10 p.m.

When they headed back to finish their voting after the rioters had been expelled and the Capitol secured, Mace was shocked that many of her colleagues were still planning to object in what she considered “a charade.”

All five fellow Republican congressmen from South Carolina went along with Trump’s effort to overturn the election. Only Mace and Rep. Jim Clyburn opposed it.

However, on the Senate side, Graham and Scott followed her lead.

It was a small consolation.

To Mace, so much was lost, and not just in life and injury and property.

“Every accomplishment that Republicans have made over the last four years, including President Trump had (made),” she said, “were wiped out in just a few short hours.”

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Nancy Mace received a boost when former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley endorsed her after the June primary and held a fundraiser for Mace at the Hilton Head Yacht Club. File/Mace Campaign/Provided

Lost cause

In the eyes of many, Mace’s standing has only risen.

Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor and dean of the College of Charleston’s School of Humanities, said Mace’s statements decrying Trump make sense given her constituents.

South Carolina’s 1st District is competitive, as seen by the narrow margin that propelled the state lawmaker to victory over Democratic incumbent Joe Cunningham in November.

Mace launched her political career after running a media and public relations firm. She ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate, finishing in the back of a crowded pack challenging incumbent Sen. Lindsey Graham in the 2014 primary.

Undeterred, she went to work in 2016 as coalitions director and field director for Donald Trump’s South Carolina presidential campaign. Then, in a 2018 special election, Mace won her Daniel Island Statehouse seat.

Now that she's in Washington, Mace knows she needs to appeal to Republicans and Democrats if she wants to stay there.

Knotts said it’s clear party leaders recognize her as a rising star and that reelection could pave the path for higher office.

“She’s young, she’s a single mother and she brings in a fresh perspective which represents a new generation of leadership in Congress,” Knotts said. “This seat launched Mark Sanford to the governorship and it launched Tim Scott to the Senate. The last few Republicans have made history with this seat.”

But Charleston County GOP Chairman Maurice Washington said he hadn’t heard many good reviews from local party members over her refusal to contest the Electoral College vote.

“Folks are very disappointed in the congresswoman’s opposition, and that’s just (because) South Carolina and the Republican Party are strong Trump supporters,” he said. “But I have not heard anyone say they are going to primary her.”

Similar sentiments echoed in Berkeley County, the most solidly Republican stronghold in the 1st District. County GOP Chair Victoria Cowart said she heard mixed reactions about Mace from party members, but disappointment seemed to be the dominant sentiment. She noted that five other Republicans in the South Carolina House delegation sided with Trump on the Electoral College dispute while Mace voted the same as Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn.

State Rep. Lin Bennett, R-West Ashley, a staunch and visible Trump supporter, said she was surprised by Mace's stance given that she ran as an avid backer of the president. Though discouraged, Bennett wants to see more of Mace in Congress before deciding whether a 2022 primary challenge is warranted. 

"I'm upset, but I get upset with Tim (Scott) and Lindsey (Graham)," she said. "I get upset with all of them."

But some party leaders in the state see it differently. Matt Moore, who served as the state's GOP chairman from 2013 to 2017, said South Carolina's 1st District is diverse and wants someone who will stand out in Washington. 

“It takes real courage to oppose your party’s president,” Moore said. “Nothing is more patriotic than standing up for your beliefs. I am confident Republicans will rally to Rep. Mace’s side if anyone is dumb enough to challenge her to a primary.”

Electoral College Protests

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. John Minchillo/AP

 Doubling down

After waking up on her new office's leather couch Thursday, Mace tried not to imagine what would have happened if she hadn’t put her children on that plane ride back to South Carolina on Monday. They would have been doing their schoolwork in her office when the mayhem began.

“I can’t even imagine if my children were here how horrifying it would have been for them,” she said. “I would have been devastated.”

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Nancy Mace, then a Republican candidate in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District race, walks with her daughter, Elli, to a ballot station to vote at Daniel Island School on June 9, 2020, on Daniel Island. File/Gavin McIntyre/Staff

That only stoked her ire as she took to various news outlets and social media to express her outrage at the violence and rhetoric, emphasizing the real-world consequences.

“I am doubling down on my position and my stake in this.”

She also wondered what would happen next.

Talk soon swirled about impeachment or invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office. Ultimately, she decided she won't support either, contending that neither would help the nation heal and would only create a race against the clock before Trump is out of office.

"The American people have had enough partisan games over the last several months, certainly over the last several weeks," she said.

With the big vote over, she mostly wanted to get home to her children. They were with their father and would all talk about what happened, together, when she returned.

“I don't want them to be afraid that every time that mom goes to D.C., this is what happens. I don't really think that is what I signed up for,” she said.

As the day wore on, she also didn’t feel comfortable traveling just yet.

Just after lunch, one of them texted her again, “Y’all safe?”

She typed back, “Mommy is safe.”

Schuyler Kropf contributed.

Reach Thomas Novelly at 843-937-5713. Follow him @TomNovelly on Twitter. 

Thomas Novelly is a political reporter based in Charleston. He also covers the military community and veterans throughout South Carolina. Previously, he wrote for the Courier Journal in Kentucky. He is a fan of Southern rock, bourbon and horse racing.