Mace becomes SC’s first Republican woman elected to Congress

U.S. House candidate Nancy Mace poses with supporters outside a Waffle House where the Republican once worked on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020, in Ladson, S.C. Mace defeated Democratic U.S. House Rep. Joe Cunningham in South Carolina’s 1st District. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

LADSON, S.C. — In flipping South Carolina’s 1st District back to GOP control, Nancy Mace has become the first Republican woman ever elected to Congress in the state, adding to a red wave that swept over the state.

The win also makes Mace, 42, only the second woman of any party elected to serve a full U.S. House term in South Carolina. She has served three years in the state House and secured her congressional nomination by winning a four-candidate Republican primary this summer.

“I’m deeply humbled that the voters of South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District had the faith trust and the confidence in us and in me to lead the Lowcountry from here forward,” Mace said Wednesday. “For those folks that are out there today that maybe weren’t with us yesterday, I’m asking for a chance — a chance to prove to you that I will be a compassionate leader, a good listener, an independent thinker.”

Mace was buoyed by Republicans sweeping through a number of races Tuesday, with margins far bigger than in recent years.

She spoke even as incumbent U.S. House Rep. Joe Cunningham refused to concede, saying in an email statement that both he and Mace “have agreed that every ballot must be counted and every voice heard before an election result is called.”

As she addressed supporters in Ladson on Wednesday, however, Mace told The Associated Press that she “absolutely” stood by her declaration of victory and expressed “disappointment” that Cunningham included her in such a statement. Still, she thanked Cunningham for his service, saying, “Anytime you step into the arena and you’re in elected office, there’s so much you have to put out there.”

Cunningham’s 2018 flip of the district from red to blue placed the area, which runs from Charleston to Beaufort, in Democratic hands for the first time in decades. It followed a GOP primary in which state Rep. Katie Arrington handed incumbent Mark Sanford — a political veteran who had served before in the U.S. House and two terms as governor — his first-ever political loss, with the challenger buoyed by support from President Donald Trump, who had called Sanford “nothing but trouble.”

In that general election, Cunningham ran largely on his opposition to offshore drilling, ultimately winning a narrow victory over Arrington, whom he had portrayed as changing positions on the issue. After that win, Democrats cited an influx of new residents to the area as potentially shifting its demographics, as voters from more liberal parts of the country possibly brought their politics with them.

The district had been among the most sought after by Republicans, who set it in their sights almost immediately after Cunningham’s win. In December 2018, state GOP Chairman Drew McKissick told The AP that he was setting up a “victory program” that he hoped would “get the party down that way focused on doing the party’s job,” saying the loss “stung” on a night of other GOP wins.

On Wednesday, McKissick also reflected on how much he felt that program had indeed been successful, projecting confidence in noting that he was ready for a future effort by Democrats to recapture the district.

“Come back, that’s fine,” McKissick told AP Wednesday. “We’re ready for you, and we’ll have a ground game that will be much more improved over the cycle when they won it, much less this cycle. … Crazy people will always try.”

Mace cited that ground game effort as part of the reason for her success in recapturing the district for Republicans.

“It was unlike anything South Carolina has ever seen, on the ground here, and that was why we won,” Mace said Wednesday of the grassroots work, noting that her campaign knocked on more than 1,000 doors in the race’s final week. “We went right to the voters, we talked to them directly, and we talked about the issues that matter to them.”

Mace spoke Wednesday outside a Waffle House in Ladson, a place where she emotionally recalled working when she dropped out of high school. The job came a year before she enrolled at The Citadel, where she became the military college’s first female graduate.

“At that time in my life, I didn’t know what my future would hold,” Mace said Wednesday. “Even when you fail, you can survive. … I wanted to finish where this all started.”