Nancy Mace Lets Loose on Kevin McCarthy, Abortion and Trump

Nancy Mace Lets Loose on Kevin McCarthy, Abortion and Trump

Rep. Nancy Mace claims she doesn’t seek out the spotlight. But it certainly keeps finding her — whether by standing up to Donald Trump after Jan. 6, helping overthrow Speaker Kevin McCarthy or warning Republicans that they’re getting the politics wrong on abortion.

But she rejects the notion she’s doing it purely to raise her profile.

“Anybody that says I would do this for celebrity isn’t paying attention or is just choosing to tell a lie,” the South Carolina Republican told POLITICO.

Still, she doesn’t have any problem throwing the kind of barbs at McCarthy that are catnip for the press. He’s “a complete loser,” she said, who “didn’t have the courage or the manhood to call me” to try to win her over before his ouster.

Some of that drama is catching up with Mace back home in South Carolina where she faces not one but two challengers at least partly motivated by revenge: a candidate backed by McCarthy and Mace’s own former chief of staff. (Indeed a large staff exodus from her office has raised eyebrows in Washington.)

On Saturday, South Carolina will be the center of the political world as voters head to the polls for the GOP presidential primary. Mace is now back in Trump’s corner, and even mentioned occasionally as a possible running mate. She endorsed Trump over her two homestate Republican candidates, Tim Scott and Nikki Haley. As she campaigns around South Carolina for the former president, she’s hoping her Trump endorsement will pay dividends this spring in her own primary.

On this week’s episode of Playbook Deep Dive, I chatted with Mace about her on-again off-again alliance with Trump, McCarthy’s attempts at revenge, her predictions for Trump’s victory margin in the South Carolina primary and the backstory to that time she wore a giant scarlet A on the House floor.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity, with help from Deep Dive Senior Producer Alex Keeney.

You have a way of being at the center of things. As a congresswoman, why is that important? What’s your thinking here?

For me, it’s not intentional. Most of the time it’s by accident because I just have something I need to get off my chest, and I wear my heart on my sleeve.

I’ve been criticized for oversharing. Yeah, I overshare, I tell you too much. But I come from a very honest place and I want people to know why I do what I do. So if it gives us a platform to get across responsible spending measures, women’s-related issues that we care deeply about, cyber security, whatever it is, then that’s a great opportunity for our district, for our constituencies, and for the state of South Carolina.

The national fallout from getting rid of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy continues. It’s also continuing in South Carolina. McCarthy seems to be spending his retirement going after you and the rest of the so-called “Gaetz Eight.” What’s it like being a target of the former speaker’s?

The former speaker needs to get a job. I think that’s the problem. He’s bored and doesn’t know what to do with himself. And you know what? He’s a loser. He couldn’t keep his job as speaker, and he quit the Republican Party.

He’s a loser?

He’s a complete loser. He couldn’t keep his job as speaker and he quit on the Republican Party. He quit his job. He put our majority at risk. And you know, I pride myself on being a caucus of one. I don’t do anything that somebody else has told me to do. And I actually told Kevin, coming into Congress, “You’re probably not going to like me. I’m not going to be with you on every single issue, particularly spending and fiscal policy.”

That debt ceiling deal he did was a horrible bill. That’s $50 trillion of debt we’re saddling with our kids and grandkids over the next ten years. That’s a bad deal. And I’ve taken on Republicans and Democrats for out of control spending. I see that they are both equally at fault here.

But also, you couldn’t trust him. The very minimum we need is someone who’s going to tell the truth and be honest. Democrats couldn’t trust him. Republicans couldn’t trust him. I come from the South. When I shake your hand, I say I’m going to do something, you better damn well do it.

And I don’t agree with Mike Johnson on everything, particularly social issues, but he’s a trustworthy guy. When he says he’s going to do something, I believe he’s going to do it, and he’s honest and he’ll talk to you. He’ll have a conversation with you and he’s not going to lie to you. That is something that I crave and I think the American people crave, and I’m not going to believe in a leader or support a leader that’s going to lie to the American people.

Do you have any regrets about the change in leadership? It’s not like Mike Johnson is having an easier time.

No. Mike Johnson inherited every bad deal Kevin negotiated.

But there’s a little bit of warm feelings for McCarthy now among some of your Republican colleagues, given how chaotic things have been in the House recently.

Well, it was chaotic before Kevin was ousted as speaker. That’s the thing. It was more behind closed doors, but it was equally chaotic. There was yelling, there was cursing, you know, damn-near fights happening. There was a lot of chaos.

Have you ever had a moment since that vote where you thought, “You know what, maybe this wasn’t the best idea?”

Look, 75 percent of the country agreed with me on that vote, and I’ve got the American people on my side. And again, it’s not my fault that there are members of my own party that have tried to sabotage us on different issues. I’ve sat in meetings where we’re talking about spending and trying to get border security; and certain factions of our own party have threatened to kill the bill if we attach border security to it. In the former speaker’s tenure, it would have been a lot easier to get away with that. But now it’s sort of, “sunlight’s the best medicine,” and I’m seeing a whole other side that I didn’t see before.

When I agree with my party, I’m going to say so. And when I do disagree with them, I’m going to speak out as I always have. But I try not to live with regret. Life is tough enough and I have to live with the decisions that I make and the votes that I take.

I’ve made some really tough votes. I mean, I voted to hold members of my own party in contempt, just like I did Hunter Biden. I hold both sides accountable and try to be consistent in that endeavor and be a constitutional conservative, a fiscal conservative, and do the right thing no matter the consequences, because I have to represent the people of my district and my state.

So tell us about the political fallout in South Carolina. What is McCarthy doing to try and oust you now?

He’s going to sink several million dollars into my opponent’s campaign.

Just let me pause there. He spent $4 million to support you last time or in 2020, right? 

Right. He’s going to spend the same amount to oust me in the primary or more. But he wouldn’t have had the majority without me.

Tell us a little bit about the primary. Your opponent, Catherine Templeton, when she entered the race, her line on you was that the district needs someone “committed to service over celebrity and someone who isn’t going to flip flop for fame.” So she’s trying to argue that you are out there trying to get media attention and not serving the district. 

The irony is men can do it, but the minute I, a fiscally conservative woman, does it, somehow it’s not the same.

I do media interviews like a lot of my male colleagues, but they’re not getting attacked. I don’t see Tim Scott or Lindsey Graham getting attacked the way that I do and they’re on TV more than I am. I actually turn down more TV interviews than I accept. And the irony is that I have far more legislative staff than I have communications staff.

Anybody that says I would do this for celebrity isn’t paying attention or is just choosing to tell a lie. And if you look at the bills that we pass — we pass bills out of committee, we pass bills out of the floor of the House — Biden has signed bills that I’ve worked on into law, especially in the cybersecurity space. In fact, the last bill that passed on the floor of the House with Kevin McCarthy as speaker was the MACE Act. I actually do a lot of legislative work.

That’s why McCarthy was so surprised by your vote, right?

Well, I mean, the guy didn’t even call me.

He knew where I stood. He knew I was frustrated. He knew that he had lied to me. And rather than call me directly — he didn’t have the balls to call me — he called my staff. I’m a member of Congress. I am a colleague. I am an equal. I was elected for this job. And you didn’t have the courage or the manhood to call me and talk to me about it and see what we could do to make what was wrong right? That, to me, is the character of someone who’s not willing to lead our conference, not willing to lead our country.

Am I an outspoken woman? Yes, but I’m also a dealmaker. I understand how this place works. But if you lie to me, we’re going to have problems.

The person he called was your chief of staff, Dan Hanlon, who is now also primarying you. What’s going on with Dan and you? 

I’m not sure he is. I know he filed but I’m not sure he actually runs, and he doesn’t live in the district. As far as we can tell, he’s not ever voted here, at least not since 2010, and when he registered with the FEC, he registered at the address of a Mellow Mushroom.

Should I know what that is?

It’s a pizza parlor in Hilton Head. He doesn’t live in the district. I respect my former staff, but I do have a few that are disgruntled.

Why is that? When I was reviewing clips about you, high staff turnover in your office came up as a thing. What’s behind that?

A lot of offices have high staff turnover, it’s not just me. And the lie that the media told was that I got rid of my entire staff, and I didn’t. Actually, all the staff in two of my three offices remained with me. All my South Carolina staff are still with me. It was just the D.C. office.

I got a new chief [of staff]. So new coach, new team. And I have really high standards. I want to measure all the work that we do. I want to see the work product. I want to have measurable objectives. I treat my office like I would my business. And there are some people that don’t want to be held accountable for their work product and you know, that’s unfortunate, but I respect all of them. I supported all of them and I’m not going to denigrate their frustration with my office. But I have very high standards. I try to be as supportive as possible. And that’s been the hardest thing for me as a mom —

You are a single mom with two teenagers, right? 

Yeah. Two teenagers, 17 and almost 15.

The same age as my two boys. You were kind of a rebellious teen, right? 

I’d moved out at 16, I dropped out of school at 17. I had emotions that I was dealing with because of the trauma I had experienced. I was a Waffle House waitress at 17. I finished school eventually that year, but I had my own share [of traumas]. But even with my challenges growing up as a teenager, I eventually came back.

What got you back on track? 

The Citadel.

But before that. Obviously, you had this very awful trauma when you were 16. How did your mindset change? What got your life back on track? 

When I was at the Waffle House, I learned a couple of things: I learned about the value of hard work, and I learned that I wanted to get my high school diploma. I did that a couple of months later. I was able to get my high school diploma by taking college classes, because I wasn’t going to go back to high school because the man who raped me was my classmate. There was no choice. I wasn’t going back to school. Like, that was not a thing, it was not going to happen. But I was able to take college classes and get my high school diploma equivalent, and I would eventually go to the Citadel.

I started the Citadel at 18. I was too young at the time to really articulate why I was doing it. But years later, having unpacked some of my trauma — and when you’re a rape survivor, it’s not like you get over it in a week or a year — it’s lifelong trauma that you have to deal with.

But I will tell you, for The Citadel, looking back on it now, I had something to prove to myself. And I wanted to prove that I could go to a challenging environment, I could face an obstacle and adversity unlike anything I had ever faced before and I wouldn’t quit. Because when I was raped, I quit. I quit school, I was too afraid to report this to the police because of the shame that I felt, the judgment I knew that would come with it, and I stayed quiet for years. I didn’t just talk about it freely until South Carolina was doing the heartbeat [bill].

This was when you were in the South Carolina state legislature and an abortion ban was going through, and you gave a speech on the floor where you spoke publicly about what had happened when you were a teenager. 

Right. We were doing the heartbeat bill and there were no exceptions for rape or incest. I was appalled by that. And of course, all the consultants tell me, “You can’t do that. You’re going to have a primary and you can’t be talking about rape and incest, etc..”

I said, “To hell with it. Watch me.”

I drafted an amendment to the bill, and I believe we were the first state in the country, followed shortly by Georgia — either right before or right after — to have exceptions for rape and incest in a heartbeat bill. And I gave the speech. I told the world what had happened. I had no notes, I didn’t know what I was going to say, but I knew that I was angered as a woman and as a rape survivor that we weren’t thinking about women who’d been raped.

I wanted to impress upon my colleagues that one, we need to hear the voices of women because at that point, no women were speaking up here.

You’ve had your ups and downs with Trump. What was the lowest point of the relationship with him, and how did you sort of dig yourself out of it? 

I said this in my endorsement and I say this a lot: I’m a fiscal conservative, I’m socially sensible, I am not going to agree with everyone in my party on everything. Of course he and I have had our ups and downs over the years, like many other people. But I represent a different portion of the electorate, a different portion of the party that are more independent minded, more independent thinking. And for me, supporting him this go-round was not a difficult choice. Between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, this was a very easy choice.

Let’s talk about the Republican primary. Nancy, break down South Carolina politics and what to look for on Saturday, Trump versus Haley. 

Number one, every Republican congressional district except for mine [is] die-hard conservative. Mine is very purple.

So for the political junkie that’s tracking the data, there will be a closer race in my district, the First Congressional District, for two reasons:

One, Nikki Haley is doing everything she can to turn out Democrats. We have open primaries, so anybody can vote in our Republican primaries. It’s still not going to make a difference with Trump. Even in my district, I believe he’ll win by double-digits, 10 or 11. Maybe it’s nine, but he’s still going to win by a significant margin.

The second thing I would say is that my district is a bellwether for the rest of the country. And so the question that reporters, media journalists, [and] data analysis consultants should be looking at is how do independent voters break? And I believe that they are breaking significantly for Donald Trump. So in my district, we have more independent voters than either of the two parties. From my perspective, seeing how independent voters and undecideds break is going to be a bellwether, potentially for the general election. There are a lot of people that say, “Hey, this is a hard-R district.”

It is not. This district was a D+10 45 days after Roe v. Wade [was overturned].

But it changed a little bit between your first and second election after redistricting? 

In ‘20, I won by one point. And then in ‘22 it got better by one point. Technically under the Supreme Court case, when there was the hearing in October, the Supreme Court acknowledged my district got 1.36 points better politically.

You mean more Republican?

By one point.

And in 2022, you won by almost 14 points in a district that had only changed a little bit?

Correct. I was probably the only Republican in history to run an ad about abortion. It was about rape. I am a sexual assault survivor. I was raped at the age of 16 by a classmate of mine in high school. And that moment changed my life. Ever since then, because of the trauma I experienced at a very young age, I have been fighting for women and women’s rights for almost my entire lifetime.

I’m also the first woman to graduate from The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina. And I’m a suburban mom. You know, when Alabama rules against IVF, it’s a problem, right?

Well, that was my next question. Tell us what your reaction to the Alabama Supreme Court ruling was.

One, I think most people will agree, science says life begins at conception. However, that doesn’t mean that we just turn away women who can’t have children and need IVF to get pregnant. We need to make sure we protect IVF for every woman across the country.

I am really passionate about women’s issues. I think that sometimes our side gets it wrong. We don’t show compassion to women. In fact, we attack women like myself when I talk about rape or when I talk about access to birth control, those kinds of things. And this is going to be an issue in ‘24. Immigration will be the number one issue but it’s going to be followed very closely behind by women’s issues and abortion, etc. We need to do everything we can to protect all forms of birth control and contraceptives, including IUDs and IVF and everything. And, it’s really important that we get it right.

If you were advising Trump in the general election, what would your advice be for the Republican ticket on this issue? 

Number one, we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it. People need to know where you stand. But also not to be afraid to say that you support birth control. If you want to reduce the number of abortions in this country, you have to increase women’s access to birth control.

Republicans are afraid to say that. And the other thing is that we shouldn’t be afraid to say “second trimester.” Like most people — and I know people who are pro-choice — their gestational limitation is 14 weeks. Mine’s 15 to 20. And I consider myself pro-life. And I think how we talk about it matters. We should not be demonizing women. As someone who talks a lot about being a survivor, who talks a lot about women’s rights — we cannot demonize other women. Having that mentality is going to hurt us at the ballot box.

Trump is reportedly for a 16-week ban. Do you think in the general election against Biden that he should affirmatively come out with a specific position? 15 or 16 weeks, or whatever it is? 

I think anywhere in the second trimester is fine to say in the general election. Because what Joe Biden is not going to do — Joe Biden is not going to give you his limits — because Joe Biden has no limits. Even pro-choice people don’t want to see abortion in the third trimester. So having some kind of reasonable, common sense, common ground position in the second trimester is a very reasonable position.

Should it be a national ban? 

I mean, he has said in his town halls in the past, “If we can build consensus.”

But the problem is neither side wants to negotiate. Both sides want to dig their heels in and they want to use it as a fundraising wedge, or they’re afraid of being primaried, and they’re afraid to find the middle ground. And that’s the problem with Congress. That’s the problem with Washington. There’s a lot of reasonable middle ground, but people are too afraid to get there.

I 100 percent understand your decision to back Trump over Haley in the primary. But does it ever tug at you a little bit that you couldn’t endorse the female candidate? 

Well, I mean, as a woman, obviously I respect [Nikki Haley]. She was a good governor. South Carolina liked her as governor. But South Carolina loves Donald Trump. And I still think there’s a chance he might pick a woman to be on the ticket.

Your prediction for Saturday. What’s the margin going to be for Trump?

He’s going to win by a huge margin. I’m going to say 25 to 28, somewhere in there.

Right now, you are out there supporting Trump and campaigning for him. How are you going to get Trump’s endorsement in your own primary? 

Well, my first focus is to get him elected on Saturday. That has been my focus for the last couple of weeks since endorsing him. I was out with Lara Trump yesterday, I’ll be on the campaign trail for the next 48 hours and [will] be with them on election night.

Did you talk to Lara about the endorsement? 

No, I did not. My focus genuinely has been to get him across the finish line. I didn’t bring anything up about an endorsement with her.

Are you intrigued by the talk of Nancy Mace as a potential running mate with Donald Trump? Obviously you would say yes if he asked you, right? 

Anybody would say yes. But when was the last time a House member became vice president? I mean, it just doesn’t happen. And my focus has always been on South Carolina. I love the job that I’m doing. I love the results that I have delivered. But I do understand, women’s issues are going to be a topic in ‘24. And I see an opportunity for me to be able to do that.

Well, from what you’re saying, Trump does have a bit of a vulnerability there and someone with your profile could potentially help him with that. 

You’ve seen mayoral races influenced by the issue of abortion, even though a mayor has no say in abortion law. So it doesn’t matter what level of candidacy or campaign we’re talking about, it is going to be an issue up and down the ballot.

Tim Scott is also frequently mentioned. Do you think Tim Scott would be a good running mate?

He would be a fantastic running mate. He’s got a lot of experience. He is a U.S. senator. He is beloved. I sit with him at church.

Have you met his now fiancee? 

Yes. They are a beautiful couple. I’m very excited for him and what lies ahead.

One of the issues that Biden will attack Trump for, and which you were very critical of Trump about, is Jan. 6. What do you say to voters with a profile similar to yours who were outraged and disgusted by Jan. 6? How do you persuade them to vote for Trump?

It’s pretty easy. Three years, going on four, under Joe Biden, if you look at every marker, whether it’s the economy, inflation, government regulation, government overreach, the border. We have to do better.

One other thing. We need to know the backstory about the Scarlet A. Did you have that shirt made? Is it just something you had in your closet?

No, I had that shirt made.

Who made it? 

A local vendor in my district made it for me that morning and I brought it with me. I was angered by the way I was being treated and singled-out by Kevin McCarthy. I thought it was very sexist. I thought it was nasty, disgusting. He treated me differently than any of the other seven, and it was my sort of anthem to be sort of like, “Well, F-you.” I’m not a shrinking violet. When I think someone is being totally derogatory or unfair or sexist, I’m going to call them out on it. No matter how much power and how much money you have.

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