Confessions of a Sometimes-MAGA Critic
Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) did not intend to strip Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) of her seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee — until, of course, she did.
As a personal matter, Mace says she has nothing against Omar. “I don’t know her from Adam,” she says, an odd contention from someone whose Capitol Hill office is literally next door to the Minnesota Democrat’s. Even if she did, the self-styled free speech champion didn’t think it was up to her colleagues to police Omar’s beliefs. “I can’t force Omar to love Israel, I can’t force Omar to recognize Israel as a state — I can’t force her to love Jewish people or like them or support them. I think it was Oscar Wilde who said he would defend to the death, you know, your right to be a dumbass.” (Mace paraphrased Wilde with more fidelity than she did Omar’s position on Israel, a description that is common among House Republicans, and which many Democrats have characterized as Islamophobia.)
At the start of the week, Mace was resolute. She told reporters on Tuesday that there was nothing that could make her vote for Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) effort to boot Omar for past antisemitic remarks. The mission lacked due process, she explains — “and that’s where a lot of my beef came from.” She’d made a similar argument two years earlier when then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) “bastardized the process,” as Mace put it, when she held a vote to remove Reps. Marjorie Taylor-Greene (R-Ga.) and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) from their committees in the same manner, a punishment for supporting violence against their Democratic colleagues.
By Thursday morning, however, Mace had changed her mind after winning a commitment from McCarthy to reform the process for removing members. Effectively, if she would support removing Omar without due process right now, then he would agree to require due process in the future. “It’s a big deal, it’s substantive,” Mace told me on Thursday afternoon. “Would I have preferred Omar to go through that before the vote? Yes, absolutely. But I would have never been able to get this done. Kevin didn’t need my vote.”
She traded doing the principled thing, in other words, for a promise in a place where Mace herself knows such things are cheap. “People up here will tell you one thing and then you turn around and they’ll do another,” she shrugs. “I’ve had it happen to me over and over and over and over again.” At least McCarthy made his intentions public.
Mace’s tenure in Congress has cycled through seasons of standing out and fitting in. She made her congressional debut in 2021 as a rare Republican willing to stand up to former president Donald Trump. The January 6th insurrection “wiped out” his “entire legacy,” she told CNN the morning after the attack, and she instructed her party to “rebuild” itself devoid of Trump’s influence. But her objections softened over her first term: She replaced calls to “rebuild” Trump’s party with toeing the Trumpian line. She joined her colleagues on Trump’s second impeachment (against) and ousting former Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from House leadership (for).
The House’s new Republican majority has found Mace in yet another incarnation. “I’m not in line with my party on everything,” she explains. “I’m very much an independent voice.” In addition to her criticism of the Omar vote, Mace has been critical of her party’s extreme abortion agenda and has tried to position herself as a voice of reason on the House Oversight Committee, a partisan bastion from which her party seeks to launch some of its most conspiratorial investigations. Mace sounds like someone who could pull her party back from its most base impulses and be a bulwark against the MAGA status quo. So far, her moderation has mostly shown up in soundbites, failing to defeat her party’s extreme instincts.
The first woman you lock eyes with in Mace’s Capitol Hill townhouse is Jackie Kennedy, smiling coyly back at you from a giant stretched canvas. The second, on your right, is Nancy Reagan, in a similar to-camera pose. Standing just to right of the foyer The third, standing just to the right of the foyer, was the real-life U.S. representative for South Carolina’s 1st district who, on this February afternoon, fiddled impatiently with the thermostat, desperate to crank the heat on one of Washington’s coldest days of the year.
Mace welcomes me into her living room, a mid-century homage to the colors of the South Carolina flag. She settles onto one of the navy couches, dragging a white shag blanket across her legs. Her laptop sits open on the lucite coffee table nearby, where she’d been working on her speech for the upcoming Congressional Correspondents’ Dinner. ”It’s like the White House Correspondents’ dinner, except funnier,” she jokes. She’s dressed like she was at the Capitol earlier that day, in a black leather dress and 70s-inspired white fringe earrings. Her brown hair, which spent most of her first term hanging straight toward her shoulders, had been styled into bouncy, TV-ready curls. She’d been on “every single show” that day, her communications director joked.
Mace’s voice — assured, commanding, a little raspy — carries in the otherwise silent brick interior. It’s a relieving contrast to the clamor of reporters who stalked Mace in the halls of the Capitol leading up to Thursday’s vote. “It’s been kind of funny,” she says of the attention. “It’s different now because we’re in the majority.” It’s different now, too, because of who Mace wants to be in this majority: An iconoclast who dangles the threat of bucking her party. “I’m gonna add my own voice,” she says. “Independent voices are largely missing in our conversations legislatively today.”
These days, Mace brushes off discussion of her scuffles with the former president as “our love-hate relationship — it’s very public, whatever.” She relishes her clashes with McCarthy and other members of House GOP leadership. “I get in trouble, sometimes — well, I call it ‘trouble,’” she says with a smirk and a shrug. “Kevin’s the principal, he gets the vice principals lined up. When I’m not with the conference, a lot of times, they want to know why.”
Mace would like to separate herself from the MAGA caucus, but doesn’t feel like she’s quite breaking through. “I have concerns about who’s in the driver’s seat and what influences different members have on leadership,” she says. She used her time in her first House Oversight hearing to slam both Democratic and Republican members for being hyper-partisan in their approach to investigations. She chastised her GOP colleagues for a slate of anti-abortion bills they brought to the floor in January. “If you really want to get serious about this issue, and balance women’s rights with the right to live, let’s give every woman access to birth control,” she says. “Instead we’re voting on stuff that will never get through the Senate.”
“I think we’ve laid the groundwork to lose the majority in two years,” she says.
Mace’s positions sound principled, and they very well may be. But those principles haven’t led to real legislative consequences yet. Mace has voted for every measure she vocally opposed. (To wit: The abortion bills were “two relatively easy pro-life bills that everybody can get behind,” she told Vanity Fair last month.) Asked how her words can be meaningful if her actions are not, Mace says there’s a method to her madness. “I am making headway,” she explains. “My willingness to try to work behind the scenes — and then when that’s not successful, being outspoken publicly — I think has been very helpful to the conversation.” She cites the deal she brokered with McCarthy on committee removals, as well as some upcoming women’s health-related legislation. “I’ve been beating my chest about it for a month,” she says. “We’re now able to have these private conversations about what we do next.”
Mace’s approach this term could very well be explained by her district’s peculiar politics, says Gibbs Knotts, a professor of political science at the College of Charleston. South Carolina’s first district became a little redder after the 2020 census, but the district maps are currently stuck in a legal battle — and may very well lean more Democratic once it makes it way through the courts. Indeed, as Mace and I spoke that afternoon, an aide sat in a nearby room “dialing for dollars,” as Mace put it. “The courts decided that the only competitive seat in South Carolina isn’t competitive enough!” she jokes.
But an equally compelling motive looms as Republicans gird themselves for another presidential primary — one that will answer whether there is a post-Trump Republican party. If there is, Mace seems eager to stake out her place in it. But finding that place will be predicated on Mace sticking to her guns, says Chip Felkel, a South Carolina-based GOP strategist. “Sometimes, she’ll take a big stand and then a couple of weeks later take an opposing position,” he says “It would be nice if she could stake out a position of being opposed to Trumpism and stick to it — and not be two steps forward, one step back.”
Perhaps Mace is right as she lays the groundwork for the long, winding road back toward something more recognizable to her wallmate Nancy Reagan. “Our country is not racing to the fringes, it’s not racing to the right, it’s not racing to the left — it’s racing to the center,” Mace says. It’s a familiar line touted by one Republican after another over the last six years. For those at the federal level, that rebellion looks a lot like Mace’s vote for Omar’s removal: Speaking about making change, conforming when it counts, and hoping to survive the pressure of MAGA-dom to see that change through. In the near term, it seems likely that the Omar dance will replay itself on issue after issue for Mace: Winning media attention for her bipartisan words as she toes the GOP line with her partisan votes.
Back in the townhouse, I ask Mace if there’s anyone in the House or Senate who reminds her of her current situation. “I’ve been asked that a lot over the last few weeks, and I don’t have an answer yet,” she says. “It’s still kind of early.” She considers the freshmen lawmakers who were voted in with the same mandate as her — but have perhaps been less comfortable to be outspoken. “I get the need, the want, the desire to observe before you act, watch, before you speak,” she says. “I came in at a different time where I had no choice, but to speak right out literally within 100 hours of being sworn in.”
“It’s very lonely,” she decides. “I have a lot of friends, but I do feel like I’m kind of a unicorn right now because I’ve been so outspoken.” She’s looking for “partners in crime,” she says, on either side of the aisle. If she struggles to find followers in her march toward a new GOP, it may be because, when it comes to votes, she’s not leading at all. For now, she’s following the party as it runs down the rabbit hole.
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